Hopes of normal family gatherings over Christmas have been thrown into doubt by Matt Hancock, who said he could not rule out “further action” after plunging millions of people in London and the southeast into the toughest tier 3 restrictions.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, appealed for families to have a “minimalist” Christmas, warning that even a modest relaxation of social-distancing rules over the festive period will “put upward pressure on the virus” and increase the strain on the NHS as it enters the busy winter months.
The warnings came as Mr Hancock revealed the discovery of a new variant of Covid-19, which he told MPs “may be associated with the faster spread in the southeast of England”, where infections have spiked fast in recent days.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Prof Whitty said that rates of infection were now doubling every seven days in parts of London, Essex and Kent, raising the prospect that the prevalence of the disease could double two more times before Christmas if left unchecked.
But he said it was too early to say whether the new strain of coronavirus was the cause for the rapid increases in infections in the southeast or may simply be more visible there because of the high number of cases. And he said there was no reason to believe it was more dangerous than earlier variants or would prove resistant to vaccines.
Tier 3 restrictions will close pubs, cafes and restaurants in the whole of inner and outer London as well as large swathes of Essex and Hertfordshire from a minute past midnight on Wednesday. Social contacts for more than 10 million people will be limited to meetings in public open spaces like parks.
The move – two days ahead of a planned review of the regionalised restriction system – provoked horror among business and some Tory MPs, with UKHospitality warning of an “unfair, illogical and disproportionate” burden on venues which have spent heavily on becoming Covid-secure, and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber warning that “arbitrary” restrictions will cost many West End theatre staff and actors their jobs.
Downing Street has also insisted that schools and colleges should remain open up to the planned start of the Christmas holiday on Thursday, with the Department for Education threatening to use emergency powers to stop them closing early in London boroughs like Greenwich and Islington.
The Covid Recovery Group of Conservative lockdown sceptics called on the government to “end the devastating cycle of repeated restrictions” so people can “start living in a sustainable way again”.
Ministers were reported to be Mr Hancock indicated that ministers continue to push ahead with plans to allow three households to come together for a five-day period around Christmas.
But he added: “I think it is important that all of us are cautious ahead of Christmas and very careful in terms of the contact that we have, especially with people who we know are vulnerable to this disease.
“It is our personal responsibility to make sure that we follow that.”
Mr Hancock said that the “sharp” increase in cases in London and the southeast over the past six days was “a salutary warning for the whole country”.
“This rise in transmission, as well as this new variant of Covid, should be a warning for all that – even after such a difficult year – we must stay vigilant,” said the health secretary.
Ministers did not rule out “further action” if the capital’s move to tier 3 failed to cut infection rates, he added.
“This isn’t over yet,” said Mr Hancock. “Please play your part and do all you can to stop the spread of this disease.”
Reports on Monday night suggested Whitehall was urgently reviewing plans to loosen restrictions between 23 and 28 December to allow families to spend Christmas together.
The Conservative former minister Stephen Hammond said he thought there would be a "rethinking" over whether it is appropriate for families to gather over the festive period.
He told BBC Two's Newsnight: "I understand quite rightly the government wanted to say to everybody Christmas is a hugely important time for families getting together.
“But I know I'm sure that there will be some rethinking about whether that is appropriate, but also the messaging, I think, has to change as well.”
Mr Hancock earlier sidestepped the question of whether there were any circumstances in which the Christmas relaxation of Covid rules might be reassessed.
“Our messages around Christmas are really clear,” said the health secretary. “We understand why people want to see their loved ones, especially at this time of year, especially after this year.
“But it must be done in a way that is careful and responsible.”
And Prof Whitty said: “The relatively modest relaxation over Christmas will undoubtedly put upwards pressure on the disease… The level of impact this will have entirely is related to how many people choose to do this in a very minimalist, responsible way.
“Those who choose to come together and do all sorts of things that they wouldn’t be doing if it wasn’t Christmas – that’s where the risks start.”
Mr Hancock hinted that areas like Manchester, Newcastle, the Tees Valley, Bristol and Nottingham may have some hope of following Liverpool out of tier 3 and into the less restrictive tier 2 in Wednesday’s review.
All had shown “the same pattern” of strong local resolve to cut infections as the Liverpool city region did when it secured its move to the lower tier, he said, adding: “We can do this, but we need to do it together.”
The latest figures showed 20,263 new cases and 232 deaths reported on Monday, bringing the total official UK death toll from coronavirus to 64,402.
While rates in former hotspots like the northwest and northeast of England have fallen following the imposition of tier 3 status earlier this month, the highest levels of infection were now concentrated in south Wales, where the number of cases per 100,000 residents has hit 870 in Merthyr Tydfil and 770 in Neath Port Talbot, and the southeast, with a 618 rate in Medway and 509 in the east London borough of Havering.
The spike came as GPs began administering Covid-19 vaccines in around 100 parts of England, stepping up a campaign of inoculations, which has already seen tens of thousands of people get the jab in hospitals.
Prof Whitty said it was important to “take rapid action” as the number of hospital admissions in London and the surrounding areas increased.
He told the press conference: “This uptick … is on the background of already rising rates, which is already putting some pressure on some hospitals and considerable pressure on others.
“This will lead, inexorably, not only to Covid deaths directly, but it also leads importantly to displacing other health activity, which means other diseases are not being treated if we do not get on top of this quickly.”
Prof Whitty added: “On Christmas, I think all of us know that Christmas is a period of greater risk, and the festive season more generally is a period of greater risk.
“But, at the same time, what we have to try to do, all of us as society, is trying to find this really difficult balance between doing things that are the least damaging we can achieve, whilst keeping the virus under control – walking that really narrow path.”
And David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation envoy, 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.”
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