Boris Johnson has cancelled Christmas for millions of people across London and south-east England after scientists said that a new coronavirus variant is spreading more rapidly.
t means that any Irish living in London will not be able to travel home to Ireland for Christmas.
The British Prime Minister announced that from Sunday areas in the South East currently in Tier 3 will be moved into a new Tier 4 – effectively returning to the lockdown rules of November.
The Prime Minister said: “We are sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so we have a better chance of protecting their lives so that we can see them at future Christmases”.
Non-essential shops, gyms, cinemas, hairdressers and bowling alleys will be forced to close for two weeks – while people will be restricted to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.
The rest of England will also see the Christmas “bubble” policy – allowing up to three household to meet up over the holiday period – severely curtailed, applying on Christmas Day only.
The move comes after scientists on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NervTag) concluded that the mutant strain identified by Public Health England – known as VUI2020/01 – was spreading more quickly.
The new variant strain of the virus which causes Covid-19 may be up to 70pc more transmissible and could increase the R value by 0.4, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “The scientific evidence on the new variant of #coronavirus is sobering. If you are in Tier 4, from tomorrow you must stay at home to protect the NHS & save lives. Thank you to everyone playing their part in the national effort.”
Johnson was advised of the group’s conclusions at a meeting with ministers on Friday evening, and the new regulations were signed off by the Cabinet in a conference call on Saturday lunchtime.
The Prime Minister said the Government was following scientific advice over changes to coronavirus restrictions.
Asked at the Downing Street press conference if it was “reckless to promise five days of Christmas against scientific advice”, Mr Johnson said: “We’ve always taken account of scientific advice, always tried to follow it and that is what we’re doing today.
“Because the science is clearly changing and has changed in the sense that our understanding of this new virus, its transmissibility, has been radically shifted just in the last 24 hours.”
Mr Johnson added: “We simply can’t ignore that and that’s why we’re taking these extra steps today to protect the country.”
Boris Johnson acknowledged it was “unquestionably a difficult moment” in the coronavirus crisis but insisted that things would be “radically different” by Easter due to the vaccine.
“We will do everything that we can, as usual, to look after business, to look after jobs and livelihoods,” the Prime Minister said.
“And we’ll continue to do that with the loan scheme, with furloughing – which the Chancellor has now extended right the way through to the end of April.
“We’ll continue to look after businesses that are forced to close as a result of what is happening, they will receive the protections that we have put in place.”
Mr Johnson said it was a “race” and the Government was “doing our absolute level best to protect the public, whilst we know that the vaccine is arriving”.
“I’m more confident than ever that we’ll get that vaccine into a significant proportion of the population by the spring and that things will be radically different for our country by Easter,” he said.
Under the new “stay at home” order – covering around a third of the population of England – people in Tier 4 will be told they should not stay away from home overnight and people from outside will be advised not to visit Tier 4 areas.
The toughest level of coronavirus restrictions will be also applied to all of mainland Scotland for three weeks from Boxing Day, Nicola Sturgeon has said.
And alert Level 4 restrictions will be be brought forward to apply across Wales from midnight, First Minister Mark Drakeford has announced.
Mr Drakeford said the pattern of transmission in London and the South East of England, linked to the new variant of coronavirus, is “remarkably consistent with the rapid acceleration of transmission in Wales” in recent weeks.
In a statement, Mr Drakeford said the latest evidence suggested that the new strain is present “throughout Wales” and said this required an “immediate response”.
The Welsh Government’s Cabinet met on Saturday to discuss the “worrying new development in the pandemic”, as well as advice from senior medical and scientific advisers, including the impact on NHS Wales.
“The situation is incredibly serious. I cannot overstate this,” Mr Drakeford said.
“We have therefore reached the difficult decision to bring forward the Alert Level 4 restrictions for Wales, in line with the action being taken in London and the South East of England.
“These new restrictions will come into effect from midnight tonight instead of during the Christmas period.”