Greater London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire are to go into the toughest tier 3 of coronavirus restrictions from a minute past midnight on Wednesday, health secretary Matt Hancock has told the House of Commons.
The formal announcement of the widely expected move was made as Mr Hancock revealed that scientists have discovered a new variant of Covid-19 circulating in the southeast.
The move to tier 3 will shut all pubs, cafes and restaurants, except for takeaway and delivery, and will restrict millions of people to meeting friends and families in public open spaces such as parks.
As well as the whole of inner and outer London, the tougher restrictions will cover south and west Essex, including Basildon, Brentwood, Harlow, Epping Forest , Castle Point, Rochford, Braintree, Thurrock, Southend and Chelmsford.
In Hertfordshire, the council areas of Broxbourne, Hertsmere, Watford and Three Rivers will also go into tier 3.
Mr Hancock told the Commons that the new strain of Covid-19 identified by UK scientists “may be associated with the fastest spread in the southeast of England”, but said that there was nothing currently to suggest that it was more likely to cause serious disease or be resistant to vaccines.
Some 1,000 cases involving the variant have been found in 60 local areas, with the majority in the southeast, he said.
After lagging behind numbers in the Midlands and the north during the autumn, coronavirus cases have increased in every part of London in recent weeks, with hospital admissions in the capital rising to their highest level since April.
The latest data, published on Sunday, shows that coronavirus rates rose across every local authority area in London in the seven days to 9 December compared with the previous week.
Havering has the city’s highest rate, with 1,314 new cases recorded in the seven days to 9 December – the equivalent of 506.3 cases per 100,000 people, up from 321 the week before.
Redbridge had a rate of 398 per 100,000 inhabitants, with Waltham Forest on 385.
Mr Hancock said that the action being taken would be “a significant blow” for businesses but was “absolutely essential”.
He told MPs: “I know that this is difficult news and I know that it will mean plans disrupted and that for businesses affected, it will be a significant blow, but this action is absolutely essential, not just to keep people safe but because we’ve seen early action can prevent more damaging and longer lasting problems later.
“These restrictions will come into force at midnight on Wednesday morning because when the virus moves quickly, we must move quickly too and we must take the actions that are not necessarily easy but are effective.”
He promised the government would “continue to stand with those who are most impacted through our furlough scheme and support for the self-employed”.
He said mass community testing for coronavirus was now being extended to 67 local authorities across England.
World Health Organisation envoy David Nabarro said that the price of Christmas get-togethers “could well be very high”.
Dr Nabarro told Times Radio: “I am personally concerned about loosening restrictions of Christmas, particularly given that right at the moment there’s still quite a lot of transmission in the UK.
“I would just ask everybody who’s thinking of meeting up with relatives at Christmas, is there any way in which you can perhaps not have the family get-togethers this year? It’s much better not to do it when there’s this kind of virus about.”
The chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, Julian Bird, said tier 3 would be “devastating” for the capital’s venues.
He called for “rapid compensation to protect theatres and their staff over Christmas in all areas of the country under tier 3 restrictions”.
And the CBI’s London director, Eddie Curzon, said the financial impact on businesses in the capital will be “stark”, adding: “Thousands of jobs and livelihoods could be at risk.
“The government must do everything possible to help businesses survive until risks recede and trade returns.”
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