Prime Minister Boris Johnson effectively cancelled Christmas gatherings for millions of families in London and the wider South East on Saturday as he sought to contain the spread of the mutant virus.
The Christmas relaxation for the rest of the country was dramatically scaled back to three households being able to meet on Christmas Day alone rather than for five days in England.
Ministers insisted the drastic action was needed to combat the new strain of the virus VUi202012/01 which was said to have been identified first in the UK on any significant scale, with less than a handful of cases in two other countries.
Nearly 60 per cent of recent new cases in London are believed to be the new strain of the virus, with cases nearly doubling in the past week.
Mr Johnson said the new virus may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible as he announced the new Tier 4 restrictions at a somber press conference at Downing Street.
“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus, the potential risk it poses, it is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” he said.
Health chiefs say there is no evidence so far that it is more deadly or that vaccines may not work against it.
Mr Johnson said he was taking the actions with a “heavy heart”, but the scientific evidence which suggests the new strain was up to 70 per cent more transmissible, had left him with no choice.
“Without action the evidence suggests that infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives,” he told the Downing Street news conference.
“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 lives, so that we can see them at future Christmases.”
Londoners give thoughts on cancelled Christmas plans and Tier 4
Sir Keir Starmer said people were getting “confusion where they need certainty”, but reiterated that people should follow the Government guidance of their tier.
“The infection rates are going up very very fast and so something has to be done, and we support the steps the Government has put in place but millions of families are going to be heartbroken by this news – having their Christmas plans ripped up,” he said.
“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.”
The Tier 4 rules which come into effect on Sunday will include:
* A “stay at home” message in law, apart from limited exemptions such as work, education, healthcare, childcare and exercise.
* People will be advised not to enter Tier 4 areas and Tier 4 residents must not stay overnight away from home.
* Christmas bubbles are axed so households will not be allowed to mix, apart from for support bubbles.
* Non-essential shops will have to close, effectively from close of business on Saturday, as will indoor leisure such as gyms, indoor entertainment including cinemas, bowling alleys and casinos, and the personal care sector including hairdressers and nailbars.
* Household mixing will be limited to one person being able to meet with one other person in a public space outside, with exemptions for support bubbles and for childcare bubbles and for children whose parents have separated.
* For the clinically extremely vulnerable, people who have been shielding in the past, the guidance from November will be reimposed which broadly says that these inidividuals should not to go to work, limit time outside the home and take exercise outside at less busy time.
* People currently not at home in Tier 4 will be able to travel back.
* People will not be able to travel abroad on holiday.
* Outdoor sport will be able to continue and there will be no restrictions on exercise.
* Around a third of England, in the high teens of people, will be in Tier 4.
* The areas affected are all the current Tier 3 areas in the South East including London, Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey excluding Waverley, Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings, and East of England areas including Bedford, central Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire, Essex excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring.
* Ministers reluctantly ordered the clampdown which comes despite Boris Johnson saying it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas.
* The rules will be reviewed in two weeks’ time, on December 30 as part of wider review of all restrictions.
* There is no impact on schools as they have already broken up.
* Police will be out enforcing the rules on New Year’s Eve.
* Talks were taking place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on whether to follow England with Tier 4.
* Tier 4 is being rushed in without being debated or voted on by MPs given the scale of the crisis.
The decisions were taken at a meeting of the Covid “O” committee this morning, chaired by the Prime Minister, who then held a meeting of the Cabinet.
Households outside Tier 4 are still being urged to limit the scale of social gatherings over the festive period, as well as the time spent together.
The new restrictions aim to slow the spread of the mutant virus to other parts of the UK.
The Government has told the World Health Organisation about its findings so far on the new variant of the virus.
Other countries may impose new bans on people travelling from the UK in the light of the development.
Health chiefs first highlighted the new variant on Monday and after further analysis the Prime Minister was given details of how fast it spreads on Friday afternoon.
Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty said: “As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.
“We have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding.
“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.
“Given this latest development it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission.”