Covid-19 New variant ‘more infectious’
The government does not want to cancel Christmas but it is “our duty” to take action when the evidence is clear, says Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
Millions of people in the UK have seen their festive plans severely restricted or scrapped after a new coronavirus variant caused cases to soar.
A stringent new lockdown has come into force in London, parts of east and south-east England and Wales.
Mr Hancock told the BBC’s Andrew Marr the new variant was “out of control”.
He also warned that the new tier four rules which have come into force in London, parts of east and south-east England, could last for months.
Some 21 million people in England and Wales who entered new restrictions at midnight are being told to stay at home, while non-essential shops and businesses have to close.
The planned relaxation of rules for Christmas has been scrapped for those under England’s new toughest measures – tier four, while in the rest of England, Scotland and Wales, relaxed indoor mixing rules are cut from five days to Christmas Day only.
Mr Hancock said it was “important for everybody to act like they might have the virus” because we need to bring the new variant “under control”.
He added: “Of course we don’t want to cancel Christmas… we don’t want to take any of these measures, but it’s our duty to take them when the evidence is clear.”
The health secretary said he did not know how long the tier four measures would be in place but “it may be for some time, until we can get the vaccine going”.
Residents in tier four are being asked to stay at home unless for essential journeys, while people in other tiers are advised not to travel into the new tier four areas.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was very important that people followed the new travel guidance in England and “do not attempt to travel”, saying extra British Transport Police officers were being deployed.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan told BBC Breakfast the “11th-hour announcement is a bitter blow” for families and businesses, saying it’s the “chop-change, stop-start, that’s led to so much anguish, despair, sadness and disappointment”.
“I’m afraid it makes it really difficult for people like me to ask people to listen to us when we keep on changing our minds,” he said.
However, he urged Londoners to follow the rules which he said had been brought in “for a very good reason”, adding that the NHS had told him that hospitals in London had as many Covid patients this weekend as they did at the peak of the virus in April.
Tier four restrictions
The tier four restrictions – similar to England’s second national lockdown – applies to all areas in the South East which were in tier three, covering Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey (excluding Waverley), Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings.
It also applies in London (all 32 boroughs and the City of London) and the East of England (Bedford, Central Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire and Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring).
Residents told to stay at home, with exemptions for those who have to travel for work or education
Household mixing indoors is not allowed
All non-essential retail to close, including hairdressers, nail bars, indoor gyms and leisure facilities
Social mixing cut to meeting one person in an open public space
Communal religious worship is still allowed
The changes for England, announced at a Downing Street briefing on Saturday, will last for two weeks with the first review due on 30 December.
In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford brought forward a lockdown, saying hundreds of people had already contracted the new, “more aggressive” strain of the virus there.
In Scotland, Covid restrictions will only be relaxed on Christmas Day, with mainland Scotland being placed under the tightest restrictions from Boxing Day.
A ban on travel to the rest of the UK will also apply over the festive period.
In Northern Ireland, no changes have been made to Christmas restrictions, with three households allowed to meet from 23 to 27 December. The country is set to enter a six-week lockdown from 26 December.
New variant ‘more infectious’
Scientists have warned that a new variant of the coronavirus variant is more infectious and spreading more rapidly leading Mr Johnson to say the government had to “change our method of defence”.
Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, said they alerted the government on Friday that the new variant – first identified in the middle of October – was spreading faster than other viruses circulating.
Dr Hopkins told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme that there was also evidence that people with the new strain had “higher viral loads” – which meant they were more infectious.
The prime minister said analysis suggested the new variant could increase the R number – which indicates if an epidemic is growing or shrinking – by 0.4 or more.
The Dutch government announced it was banning passenger flights between the Netherlands and the UK from 05:00 GMT Sunday, until 1 January at the latest, because of the new variant.
There is still some reason for hope
The steep increase in the proportion of coronavirus cases linked to this new variant is strong evidence that it is driving transmission.
It may explain why, during the second lockdown, cases started to increase in London, while in Kent the tier three measures appear to have had little impact in recent weeks.
As England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty says, this is a bad moment, but there is also some hope.
The prime minister announced 350,000 people had been given the first dose of the vaccine in the first two weeks of the programme.
In the coming weeks, the number of GP-led vaccination clinics should increase six-fold, while approval of a second vaccine made by Oxford University could pave the way for mass vaccination centres to be set up.
That could see two million people a week being vaccinated. Within a matter of months all the over-65s could have been offered a jab. This could then start to feel very different.
But for now, the slog of the pandemic continues – and for many it just got harder.