Some 61 per cent of England’s population will be under Tier 3 after vast swathes of the South East are thrust into the harshest set of Covid restrictions from midnight tonight.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons that the tough new rules will come into effect in London just after midnight on Wednesday morning, sparking fury that he is sending thousands of businesses to the wall.
Large areas of Hertfordshire and Essex will also go into Tier 3 after seeing a ‘sharp and exponential’ growth in cases.
The change will leave 34 million people in England under the top-tier of Covid rules, which force all restaurants, pubs, bars and theatres to close their doors.
Extraordinarily, No. 10 has insisted that all the curbs will still be relaxed on December 23 as part of the Christmas ‘bubbles’ plan.
But scientists fear this could fuel the new faster-spreading Covid variant that may be behind the surge of cases in southern England.
Britain yesterday recorded a further 20,263 coronavirus cases, in a rise of more than a third on last Monday’s total.
Official figures released on Monday also revealed 232 people died after testing positive for the virus – in a 22.8 per cent spike on the 189 deaths seen on the same day last week.
Some 61 per cent of England’s population will be under Tier 3 after vast swathes of the South East are thrust into the harshest set of Covid restrictions from midnight tonight. Pictured: Revellers enjoying their last few days of Tier 2 freedom in London on Monday evening
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons that the tough new rules will come into effect in London just after midnight on Wednesday morning, sparking fury that he is sending thousands of businesses to the wall. Pictured: Revellers out in London on Monday evening
The change will leave 34 million people in England under the top-tier of Covid rules, which force all restaurants, pubs, bars and theatres to close their doors. Pictured: Revellers out in London on Monday evening
What are the Tier 3 rules?
- Indoor entertainment venues such as cinemas, theatres and bowling alleys must close;
- Pubs, restaurants and cafes must close except for takeaway;
- Shops and hairdressers and salons will be allowed to remain open;
- Groups of six will be allowed to meet outdoors only;
- Crowds at live events will be banned;
- People should avoid travelling out of, or into, Tier 3 areas unless it is unavoidable;
- People from separate households cannot meet indoors and the rule of six applies outside.
Addressing the nation at a televised press conference, Mr Hancock said yesterday: ‘We know from experience that the best thing to do in the face of this virus is to act fast, not to wait to see its growth continue – and we do not rule out further action.’
But he faced down questions over the wisdom of relaxing some restrictions on family gatherings at Christmas.
In response he said: ‘If you want to see elderly relatives at Christmas the best thing to do is be extremely careful now about who you see.’
Professor Chris Whitty reiterated that people need to be cautious at Christmas and should not meet just because they can.
‘The point of this (relaxation of rules) is for, under certain circumstances, families who wish to, to get together, but they really have to be very, very careful.
‘And in particular, incredibly careful if they’re around people who are vulnerable, who are at very high risk of this virus.’
In another bombshell announcement Mr Hancock said that scientists had identified a ‘new variant’ of the virus that appeared to be influencing the spread in the south of England.
He said initial evidence was that it is growing much faster than the previous strains, although he tried to cool fears by stressing that it did not seem to be more deadly, and there was low risk that it will not respond to vaccines.
‘We have identified a new variant of coronavirus, which may be associated with the fastest spread in the south-east of England,’ Mr Hancock told MPs.
The new Tier 3 areas
As well as London, Matt Hancock outlined parts of Essex and Hertfordshire would also be placed in Tier 3.
- Epping Forest
- Castle Point
- Three Rivers
‘Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas, and numbers are increasing rapidly.’
Mr Hancock said the strain had also been identified in other countries and the World Health Organisation had been notified, with tests still being carried out at the government’s Porton Down lab.
The Tier 3 move drew a furious reaction from local MPs and firms who warned it will devastate businesses. London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey branded it a ‘mistake’ and said individual boroughs should be treated differently. Pubs, restaurants and culture venues will be closed, while shoppers from Tier 2 zones will be barred from shopping in major retail hubs like Oxford Street.
West End theatres are also readying themselves to close after tomorrow night’s performances.
Meanwhile there is anxiety that Kent, already in Tier 3, could face a further tightening of restrictions with a surge in cases that has yet to fall.
In an apparent attempt to assuage anger, Mr Hancock indicated that the next review will be on December 23 – rather than December 30 as had been expected.
However, in a grim statement to the House on the epidemiological situation he said: ‘Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants.
‘We’ve currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant predominantly in the South of England although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas.
‘And numbers are increasing rapidly.’
The Government agreed to review the tier levels every two weeks at the latest after they were introduced on December 2, in order to pass the legislation needed in the face of a backbench rebellion.
But the decision was brought forward from Wednesday to Monday because of the spike in numbers, with a key cabinet committee having met this morning.
Addressing the nation at a televised press conference, Mr Hancock added: ‘We know from experience that the best thing to do in the face of this virus is to act fast, not to wait to see its growth continue – and we do not rule out further action’
Introducing the restrictions sooner means they have more time to take effect before the nationwide loosening of restrictions from December 23 – 27, with up to three families allowed to meet without social distancing.
Earlier, London mayor Sadiq Khan warned Tier 3 would be ‘catastrophic’ without extra help for the city’s businesses, coming in what should be a ‘golden quarter’ of the year before Christmas.
He told Sky News: ‘If the government decides to do that they must provide additional support over and above what has been offered to make sure these businesses go bust,’ he told Sky News.
‘If they go bust not only will it lead to hundreds of thousands of Londoners being made unemployed, but our ability to recover from this pandemic will be made much harder. It is in nobody’s interest for these businesses to go bust, December is a crucial month for many of these business.’
In his statement yesterday Mr Hancock said: ‘I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease and the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.’
He added: ‘I need to tell the House that over the last week, we’ve seen very sharp, exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.
‘We do not know the extent to which this is because of the new variant but no matter its cause we have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out.’
Greenwich’s council leader Danny Thorpe has told all schools in the south-east London borough to close from Monday evening as he warned its Covid-19 situation was ‘escalating extremely quickly’. The infection rate per 100,000 people in the capital stood at 191.8 on December 6, up from 158.1 the previous week. Pictured: London infection rates by borough week to December 6
Matt Hancock told the Commons on Monday that a new strain of coronavirus could be driving a surge in cases as he announced millions of Londoners are to be plunged into a Tier 3 shutdown days before Christmas
Boris Johnson (pictured on Monday) is facing a backlash from London Tories who want the capital to avoid Tier 3, with some threatening to vote against extending pandemic restrictions the next time they need updating
North-South divide: The above graph shows infection rates in England a day before the old tier system came into force on October 13 (left) and infection rates across the UK nation on December 8 (right)
Mr Hancock listed the areas that will be moving into Tier 3 from midnight on Wednesday morning.
When will the tiers be reviewed?
The government has brought forward the date for the review of London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, which will now go into Tier 3 from Wednesday.
Legally ministers must look again at the arrangements every 14 days, but it now appears they will do so far more regularly.
Wednesday, December 16
The rest of England is still set to learn its fate, with the new brackets expected to take effect from Saturday.
Wednesday, December 23
Matt Hancock has pledged another review of the tiers will take place on the same day as the Christmas ‘bubbles’ relaxation begins.
Monday, December 28
The Christmas ‘bubbles’ are due to end, with areas going into the tiers they were allocated at the review a week earlier.
Wednesday, December 30
Another review of the tiers could take place.
The parts of Essex are: Basildon, Brentwood, Harlow Epping Forest, Castle Point, Rochford, Malden, Braintree and Chelmsford, Thurrock and Southend on Sea.
In Hertfordshire the areas being upgraded are: Broxbourne, Hertsmere, Watford and the Three Rivers.
‘This means that people can only see friends and family they don’t live with, or are in a support bubble with, in outdoor public places,’ he said.
‘And of course, in line, with the rule of six, hospitality settings must close, except takeaway delivery. And people should avoid travelling outside their area and reduce the number of journeys they make wherever possible.’
The Health Secretary made clear that people should not be coming to London for Christmas shopping as a result of the new restrictions.
But his Labour shadow Jon Ashworth yesterday said the government’s slow response was partly to blame for the severity of the situation.
‘Across London health cases have increased 30 per cent, across the east of England 36 per cent, so none of us are surprised at the action he is taking today,’ Mr Ashworth said on Monday.
‘Indeed, he was warned Tier 2 would not be enough to contain the spread of the virus in many places.
‘Indeed it looks like in some areas, such as Kent, tier 3 isn’t enough to contain the spread either.’
Professor Kevin Fenton, London regional director for Public Health England, said now is a ‘pivotal moment’ for London and the South East.
He told the Downing Street briefing tonight: ‘As we’ve heard from the chief medical officer numbers and rates of infection are now increasing exponentially in parts of the South East.
‘And this means that quick and decisive action is needed.
‘There is a strong connection between increases that we’re seeing in London with parts of the south of Essex, as well as the South East region and it really is important that we are working together, coordinating carefully across the regions to ensure that we act to control the infection now.’
He said Londoners should expect to see more messaging about coronavirus in the coming days urging people to ‘take heed, to follow the rules, and to follow the guidance for Tier 3 and to prepare for the holiday season ahead.’
Mr Khan said the Government’s decision to impose Tier 3 restrictions on the capital was ‘incredibly disappointing’ for businesses.
But, in a statement, the Labour mayor urged Londoners to follow the measures to ‘avoid even tougher restrictions, for longer, further down the road’.
‘This is incredibly disappointing for our businesses who have suffered so much already this year,’ he said.
‘The worst thing for London’s businesses and our economy would be yet another full lockdown in the new year. That’s why I urge Londoners to follow the Tier 3 rules that the Government is putting in place very closely so that we can drive down infection rates as much as possible.
‘We now urgently need much more Government support for the sectors of our economy that are being hit the hardest, including hospitality, culture and leisure.’
Eddie Curzon, London director of the CBI warned many firms now face disaster, having been allowed to open for just two weeks after the blanket lockdown ended.
‘Businesses – particularly those in sectors like retail and hospitality – will have been counting on a festive fillip to help mitigate months of hardship, and further restrictions now will come as a devastating blow,’ he said.
‘Thousands of jobs and livelihoods could be at risk. It’s vital that any tightening of measures anywhere across England is shaped by clear evidence, consistently applied, and accompanied by increased support for businesses in the worst-hit sectors.
‘Vaccinations are now under way and offer tangible reasons for optimism in 2021 – the government must do everything possible to help businesses survive until risks recede and trade returns.’
The British Beer & Pub Association said in London alone the restrictions will force 1,250 pubs that remained open in Tier 2 to close, putting nearly 8,000 more jobs at risk.
In total, 56,000 jobs in the sector are now at risk with all of the capital’s 3,680 pubs forced to close except for takeaways, according to the trade association, which is calling for more financial support for pubs and brewers across the country.
Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said: ‘Moving into Tier 3 is another nail in the coffin for London’s pubs, as well as those affected in parts of Hertfordshire and Essex.
‘It could completely destroy many pubs in London and parts of Hertfordshire and Essex who have taken bookings for the lead-up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve if the tiers don’t change before then.
‘It is cruel on hardworking publicans doing all they can to support their communities and invest in implementing all the required safety measures. Especially as the Government’s own evidence shows pubs are safe.
‘It is also cruel in stopping friends, families and loved-ones from using their local this Christmas as a safe space to socialise in, with all the evidence showing that pubs are ranked amongst the lowest places for transmission.’
UKHospitality called the Tier 3 move ‘illogical’ and said the Government’s system puts an unfair burden on hospitality businesses without effectively tackling Covid-19.
The trade association’s chief executive Kate Nicholls said: ‘The Government is cracking down on hospitality for an increase in the infection rates that occurred during a period when hospitality was forcibly closed. It makes no sense.’
Will Bowlby, who runs the Kricket Indian restaurant chain in London, was also critical of the Government’s handling of the crisis.
‘I understand that things change but I feel like there’s just been mixed messages,’ he said.
‘Whether it’s applied to businesses or to people in general, it’s made it a lot more difficult to adapt.
‘You would have thought over time their messaging might have got a bit clearer but it hasn’t.’
Clover Eziashi, who has run Lounge Brixton, in south London for around 20 years, said her ‘heart bleeds’ at having to shut down again after preparing for Christmas.
‘The lockdown of this last month and then opening up, people just went into a frenzy,’ she said.
‘It’s just not working, obviously it hasn’t worked shutting us down again when we’ve already put so much money into restocking, that’s where my heart bleeds a little bit.
‘We’ve geared up for Christmas, what are we going to do with all of this stock?’
The director of the Theatres Trust, Jon Morgan, branded the move announced on Monday a ‘disaster’ for London’s theatres, adding: ‘Theatres have worked incredibly hard to create safe environments for audiences and through no fault of their own will now face enormous financial losses.’
Jace Tyrrell, chief executive at New West End Company, yesterday said: ‘However well telegraphed, today’s announcement comes as a hammer blow to the West End’s restaurants and hotels.
‘Advising against travel will heap further pressure on retailers that have invested millions in enhanced safety measures and staff training to support trade.’
In the Commons, Mr Hancock was asked whether it would be against the rules for people to come into the capital to do Christmas shopping.
Jeremy Hunt, Conservative chairman of the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, said: ‘From Wednesday, if you live outside London will it be against the regulations to come into Oxford Street to do your Christmas shopping?
‘If you live inside London, will it be against the regulations to do your Christmas shopping and is the only way to do your Christmas shopping legally now to go online?’
Mr Hancock replied: ‘The question he asks about Christmas shopping is important.
‘It is recommended that people should minimise travel unless it is necessary in a Tier 3 area and should minimise travel where it is necessary to a Tier 3 area.
‘And so we have taken this action to try to protect people and to try to slow the spread of this virus and that is absolutely the right thing to do.’
Under Tier 3 restrictions, non-essential shops will remain open – though the guidance on travel could deprive many of the capital’s retailers of much-needed custom ahead of Christmas.
After a call with Mr Hancock earlier, Ealing Central Labour MP Rupa Huq tweeted: ‘Worst kept secret ever confirmed London and Essex (except Tendring) and Herts (Watford/ Hertsmere/ Broxbourne) from 1 min past midnight Weds.
‘London and bits of Essex and Hertfordshire to enter ”standard tier 3” from Wednesday confirmed by Matt Hancock on call for MPs from London and South East Next review on 23rd Dec – to be weekly.’
The mayor told Sky News: ‘My understanding is that Covid-O is meeting as we speak – that’s the sub-committee of the Cabinet that makes the recommendations.
‘We will have to wait and see what the Government decides – it’s a Government decision, not my decision or London leaders’ decision.’
Shoppers out and about in Regents Street in central London tonight as the news of the Tier 3 move emerged
People sat outside a pub in the West End of London. Hospitality venues will only be allowed to serve takeaway from Wednesday morning
Infection rate data for December 8 shows that the worst affected areas of England are now mostly confined to the East, South East and London (left), but lockdown rules brought in at the beginning of December show that most of the toughest lockdown rules are in the Midlands and North (right)
The announcements from Mr Hancock sparked a strong response from Britons on Twitter this evening
Downing Street said yesterday there are no plans to shorten the period over Christmas in which social distancing will be relaxed nationwide amid concerns over increasing coronavirus rates.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘No. We’ve set out the details of the Christmas guidelines.
‘There are no plans to review the Christmas guidance. What we’ve said alongside that is that the public should continue to be cautious.
‘I think the Prime Minister said it’s the season to be jolly careful and we would emphasise that we should continue to do that.
‘We’ve been clear that it’s a limited easement to allow families to bubble over the Christmas period after what has been a very difficult year for many people.
‘But it remains important for the public to follow the guidance.’
It came as millions of London parents faced an anxious wait to see if schools are shut early after a Labour council backed by Sadiq Khan asked headteachers to shut their gates because of rising coronavirus cases in the capital.
Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe has been accused of ‘an appalling lack of leadership’ after announcing his decision on Twitter last night amid fears London’s 20 other Labour councils could follow suit.
But Cllr Thorpe, a former teacher supported by Britain’s teaching unions, did not specify on what scientific basis officials had reached the decision, leading to accusations he was putting scoring political points above the education of children.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan wants all London secondary schools and colleges to shut before the end of term on Friday – in defiance of the government’s instruction to keep them open – blaming rising Covid-19 cases.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer came out against Mr Khan yesterday morning and told LBC: ‘I am very reluctant to close our schools’.
No10 refuses to cancel Christmas Covid rule break
Downing Street has insisted the Christmas relaxation of social distancing rules will go ahead despite increasing warnings that it will lead to a rise in coronavirus cases.
Number 10 stressed that the public should remain ‘jolly careful’ over the festive period but said there are no plans to review the guidance after a ‘very difficult year for many people’.
Concerns were mounting, however, of a fresh spike in Covid-19 cases from the UK-wide relaxation to allow bubbles of up to three households between December 23 and 27.
Chief medical officer for Wales Dr Frank Atherton issued a stark warning ‘to save lives now, don’t mix with other people’.
‘Don’t put yourself and your family at risk for the sake of tradition,’ he said on Monday.
But the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said No 10 was not reconsidering the relaxation.
‘There are no plans to review the Christmas guidance. What we’ve said alongside that is that the public should continue to be cautious,’ he said.
‘We’ve been clear that it’s a limited easement to allow families to bubble over the Christmas period after what has been a very difficult year for many people. But it remains important for the public to follow the guidance.’
London Tory MPs in yesterday’s briefing with health minister Helen Whately urged the PM to avoid a blanket Tier 3 move for the city.
Harrow East Tory Bob Blackman said that the only people who would benefit from the move would be Amazon and other online retailers, with shoppers from Tier 2 areas effectively barred from entering the capital.
He and other Tory MPs wrote to Boris Johnson at the weekend urging him not to inflict ‘untold damage’ on the capital by moving it into Tier 3.
They warned many London Tory MPs could vote against the Government’s Covid approach when it is reviewed next month if the city is plunged into tier 3.
Mr Blackman told MailOnline on Monday that the briefing yesterday involved ‘lots of questions and not many answers’.
‘They are in the position I think of softening everyone up to say ”not only are you going to go into tier 3 but we are going to have to strengthen tier 3 and possibly have a tier 4 doing something else”, which none of us know yet,’ he said.
He suggested that closing secondary schools – one of the main sources of growth in cases – may help to act as a fire-break before restrictions are lifted for five days across Christmas.
Labour’s Bermondsey MP Neil Coyle added: ‘Very grim figures. So angry at repeat failures to properly test and trace, a year after WHO sounded the pandemic alarm. People, especially children, and businesses have been let down so badly.’
Another MP in the capital said there was a ‘lot of frustration’ with no real answers to their questions.
It was the ‘same gloomy outlook as last week’s meeting except all the data is even worse, almost back to the levels pre-lockdown’.
The MP suggested that the message over Christmas would be ‘do not mix if you don’t need to’.
In a letter to the Prime Minister, which was jointly signed by London Councils chairwoman Georgia Gould, Mr Khan said the seven-day case rate had risen in 32 local authority areas in the capital compared to the previous week.
There were also 17 boroughs where the seven-day rate exceeded 200 cases per 100,000 people.
According to the latest figures, the borough of Havering has the highest coronavirus rate in London, with 1,314 new cases recorded in the seven days to December 9 – the equivalent of 506.3 cases per 100,000 people.
This is up from a rate of 321.3 in the seven days to December 2.
The figures have been calculated by the PA news agency, based on Public Health England data published on December 13 on the Government’s coronavirus dashboard.
Covid cases rising in every part of London, figures show
The rate of new coronavirus cases has increased across every area of London, while the number of Covid-19 hospital admissions in the capital has risen to the highest level since April, new data shows.
The latest data, published on Sunday, shows that coronavirus rates rose across every local authority area in London in the seven days to December 9 compared with the previous week.
Havering has the highest rate in London, with 1,314 new cases recorded in the seven days to December 9 – the equivalent of 506.3 cases per 100,000 people.
This is up from 321.3 in the seven days to December 2.
Redbridge has the second highest rate, up from 296.5 to 398.1, with 1,215 new cases.
Waltham Forest is in third place, where the rate has risen from 258.9 to 385.2, with 1,067 new cases.
The figures, for the seven days to December 9, are based on tests carried out in laboratories (pillar one of the Government’s testing programme) and in the wider community (pillar two).
The rate is expressed as the number of new cases per 100,000 people.
Data for the most recent four days (December 10-13) has been excluded as it is incomplete and does not reflect the true number of cases.
Meanwhile, the most recent data also shows that there were 248 people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in London on December 9, the highest number since April 28 when there were also 248 Covid admissions.
The data, updated on Sunday, includes people admitted to hospital who tested positive for Covid-19 in the 14 days prior to admission, and those who tested positive in hospital after admission.
Inpatients diagnosed with Covid-19 after admission are reported as being admitted on the day prior to their diagnosis.