Millions more people in England are to be plunged into the toughest tier 4 restrictions from Boxing Day, it has been confirmed, as the government grapples to contain the “dangerous” spread of the new Covid variant.
After ministers met on Wednesday morning to hammer out plans to combat the rising number of infections, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that a series of locations in tier 2 – including Oxfordshire, most of Hampshire, West Sussex, the remainder of East Sussex not already in tier 4, as well as Brighton and Hove, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire – would be placed under the toughest curbs on Saturday. Parts of Essex not already in tier 4 and Waverley, in Surrey, will join them.
The 6 million people living in the areas join nearly 18 million people in London, the south-east and east of England who have endured tier 4 “stay at home” restrictions – including the closure of non-essential shops and strict one-on-one meeting limits outside between households – since Sunday.
“Just as we’ve got a tiered system in place that was able to control this virus, we’ve discovered a new more contagious virus, a variant that is spreading at a dangerous rate,” Hancock told a Downing Street press conference, as he unveiled the latest moves and acknowledged that tier 3 measures were not enough to control the variant.
Separately, Hancock revealed that two cases of another new variant of Covid-19 linked to South Africa have been identified in the UK. The health secretary, who said cases and close contacts of cases were being quarantined in the UK and immediate restrictions were being imposed on travel from South Africa, added: “This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant that has been discovered in the UK.”
Explaining Downing Street’s tier changes, Hancock, who said cases had risen 57% across the country in the last week with nearly 19,000 in hospital with Covid – almost as many as at the peak – said: “Against this backdrop of rising infections, rising hospitalisations and rising numbers of people dying from coronavirus it is absolutely vital that we act. We simply cannot have the kind of Christmas that we all yearn for.”
He added: “We know that the three-tiered system worked to control the old variant and is working now in large parts of the country, especially in northern England. But we also know that tier 3 is not enough to control the new variant. This is not a hypothesis, it is a fact and we’ve seen it on the ground.”
Among other changes, Hancock said Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset including the North Somerset council area, Swindon, the New Forest district and Northamptonshire, as well as Cheshire, Warrington and the Isle of Wight, would be moved up to tier 3. Cornwall and Herefordshire are being placed in tier 2. Hampshire’s move to tier 4 includes Southampton, Hancock said.