Millions of people across southeast England will no longer be able to mix with other households at Christmas, with a new Tier 4 level of COVID restrictions – equivalent to a full lockdown – to come into force tomorrow.
In a dramatic move, prompted by fears over a new strain of coronavirus, all those areas currently in Tier 3 in the South East – including London – will move to the new Tier 4 on Sunday.
And, in further stark action across the rest of England, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the planned five-day easing of restrictions over the festive period will now be limited to a single day.
“We cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” said Mr Johnson, as he announced the action “with a very heavy heart” at a Downing Street news conference on Saturday.
The Tier 4 measures will see all non-essential shops, gyms, and hairdressers close, with people ordered to stay home apart from limited exceptions such as work – if people cannot work from home – education, childcare and exercise.
People in Tier 4 areas will no longer be allowed to form “Christmas bubbles” with other households.
Meanwhile, outside of the South East, people will still be allowed to mix in private homes with up to two other households, but now only on Christmas Day.
The Tier 4 measures in the South East will be in place for an initial two-week period, and Mr Johnson stressed that people must stick to the rules for the New Year period.
Those in Tier 4 areas are being ordered not to stay overnight away from home or travel abroad for holidays, while people in other areas are being advised not to enter Tier 4 areas – and not to travel generally if they can avoid it.
Under England’s new highest level of restrictions, only one person from a household can meet with another person from a different household outside, although exemptions will continue for support bubbles and childcare bubbles.
Those who are deemed to be clinically extremely vulnerable will be told to follow the same guidance as during November’s England-wide lockdown, which urged those people to stay at home as much as possible apart from outdoor exercise or to attend health appointments.
Downing Street suggested schools would still reopen in Tier 4 areas after the Christmas holidays.
The action has been prompted by the government’s fears over a new strain of coronavirus – known as VUI-202012/01 – which is believed to spread more quickly than the original strain and is judged to be the reason for rapidly rising infection rates in the South East.
Mr Johnson said it could be up to “77% more transmissible”, and that the situation had given him “no alternative” but to toughen up restrictions.
However, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, has said there is “no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is underway to confirm this”.
COVID-19 cases have been nearly doubling in London over the past few weeks, while in Kent cases have continued to rise despite the county having been under Tier 3 measures since the end of last month’s lockdown.
This has led to fears that Tier 3 measures are unable to contain the new strain and more needs to be done in London and the South East.
The new strain has been detected in two other countries other than the UK, albeit in very small quantities.
The prime minister announced the new restrictions at the Downing Street news conference after chairing a cabinet meeting on Saturday afternoon.
There are currently no plans to recall parliament to allow MPs to vote on the new measures.