London and swathes of southeast England to move into tier 4 from Sunday, Boris Johnson announces

Gyms, hairdressers and non-essential shops will be ordered to close their doors days before Christmas

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
,Andrew Woodcock
Saturday 19 December 2020 19:49 GMT
New coronavirus strain up to 70% more transmissible, government says

Boris Johnson has dramatically cancelled Christmas plans for millions of people, ordering a strict new lockdown for vast swathes of southeast  England and London.

Leaving festive plans in chaos, the prime minister pulled the government’s five-day relaxation of measures between 23 and 27 December, issuing “stay at home” orders and banning gatherings in areas that fall under the new tier 4 restrictions.

Across the rest of England, the mixing of households in Christmas “bubbles” will be restricted to just a single day on 25 December itself – a move also adopted by both Scotland and Wales.

From Sunday, gyms, hairdressers and non-essential shops in areas falling under tier 4 measures will join pubs and restaurants in being forced to close their doors during the crucial Christmas period for many businesses.

The 16.4 million individuals living in the areas of severe restrictions will only be able to meet with one other person in a public space outdoors.

Similar to previous lockdowns, exemptions will apply for those in bubbles and people who need to travel for education, childcare purposes and unlimited amounts of exercise.

Despite defending the festive relaxation just three days ago in the face of repeated calls from scientists for a rethink, the prime minister conceded: “It is with a heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned”.

“As your prime minister I sincerely believe there is no alternative open to me. Without action, the evidence suggests infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives,” he added.

It is understood there are no plans to recall parliament, which went into Christmas recess on Thursday, in order to give MPs a vote on the emergency measures. The rules will be reviewed on 30 December.

Follow live: Coronavirus news live - Boris Johnson announces Tier 4 rules

After convening an emergency meeting of the cabinet on Saturday, Mr Johnson told the nation a new strain of coronavirus is up to 70 per cent more transmissible, with the mutation responsible for 60 per cent of new cases in the capital.

Government figures also showed that the number of Covid-19 deaths increased by 534, with 27,052 new cases of the disease recorded, taking the total number infected since the beginning of the pandemic to more than 2 million.

Following Mr Johnson’s televised address to the nation, Nicola Sturgeon announced a “strict travel ban” between Scotland, adding the toughest Covid-19 restrictions would be applied to all of mainland Scotland from Boxing Day in a move that puts the country in alignment with Northern Ireland’s planned post-Christmas lockdown.

Wales’s first minister Mark Drakeford confirmed the country would enter a national lockdown from midnight on Saturday, with planned festive bubbles restricted to one day. He said the surge in cases in London, linked to the new variant, was “remarkably consistent with the rapid acceleration of transmission in Wales”.

In England, tier 4 restrictions will apply in all tier 3 areas in the southeast, covering Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey (excluding Waverley), Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings.

It will also apply in London (all 32 boroughs and the City) and the east of England, covering Bedford, Central Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire, Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring).

Updating senior ministers at the weekend, the prime minister said scientists on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) concluded that the mutant strain identified by Public Health England was spreading more quickly.

He later told the country: “Nervtag early analysis suggests the new variant could increase the R by 0.4 or more and although there is considerable uncertainty it may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the old variant.

“This is early data and is subject to review but it is the best that we have at the moment and we have to act on information as we have it because this is now spreading very fast.”

Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said the new coronavirus variant would decrease the effectiveness of current social distancing measures and that people must continue to follow them.

“Yes social distancing does work, it doesn’t work as a yes, no,” he told a press conference. “The more things you do, the more determinedly you do them ... the more this and every other respiratory virus goes down.”

Commenting on changes to Christmas rules, Mr Johnson added that as prime minister he believed there was “no alternative open to me” – despite criticising Sir Keir Starmer for wanting to “cancel” festivities just three days ago in the Commons.

He said: “Without action the evidence suggests that infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives.”

“Yes Christmas this year will be different, very different. We’re sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so that we have a better chance of protecting their loves, so that we can see them at future Christmases. And as sure as night follows day we will beat this virus, we'll defeat it and reclaim our lives.”

Speaking after the prime minister’s decision to rip up the festive plans for millions, the Labour leader accused him of causing “heartbreak” for families just days after the government insisted the planned easing of restrictions would go ahead.

Sir Keir said his party would back the draconian new tier 4 restrictions for London and the southeast, adding: “I’m really frustrated because I raised this with the prime minister on Wednesday, and he dismissed that and went on to tell people to have a merry little Christmas, only three days later to rip up their plans.

“I think the British public is entitled to more decisive leadership than that. They’re getting confusion where they need certainty.”

“The prime minister has a habit of pushing away challenge of refusing to see a problem until it later confronts him and I think lots of families will be saying ‘How has this come about at the eleventh hour in this way?’”

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