Millions More People Will Go Into Tough Tier 4 Restrictions On Boxing Day After Mutant Virus Surge
Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced millions more people will be placed into tier 4 restrictions on Boxing Day (PA)
Matt Hancock has announced millions more people in southern England will be placed into a tier 4 virtual lockdown on Boxing Day.
The health secretary made the announcement after revealing a second new more virulent strain of coronavirus from South Africa has been identified.
He said the toughest level of restrictions are needed in more areas as positive Covid cases are up by 57% in the past week, while hospital admissions with the disease are at their highest since April.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Mr Hancock said: "From 00.01 on Boxing Day Sussex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, those parts of Essex not yet in tier 4, Waverley in Surrey and Hampshire including Portsmouth and Southampton, but with the exception of the New Forest, will all be escalated to tier 4."
The move will still allow people in those areas to spend Christmas Day together before the new measures come into force, but once they do it will mean the entire South East and Eastern England must follow the strict “stay at home” message.
Today’s announcement places an additional six million people into 4, increasing the total figure to 24 million people, or 43% of the population.
The health secretary also revealed other areas will be moving into higher tiers as well, saying: "Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset including the North Somerset council area, Swindon, the Isle of Wight, the New Forest and Northamptonshire as well as Cheshire and Warrington will all be escalated to tier 3.
"And I'm afraid that Cornwall and Herefordshire have seen sharply rising rates and need to be escalated to tier 2.”
This leaves the Isles of Scilly as the only place still in tier 1, with household mixing now banned in every other part of England.
The decision to cancel the Christmas rule relaxation, and place London and other parts of the South East into tier 4 last weekend came after a new strain of Covid 19, which is up to 70% more transmissible, was identified.
It was blamed for cases continuing to rise in spite of the second lockdown and tier 3 restrictions.
The latest announcement on tiers was accompanied by the revelation two cases have been detected of another new strain of the coronavirus in the UK, both of whom “are contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks”, Mr Hancock said.
He 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."
The minister said both cases and close contacts of the cases have been quarantined, and immediate restrictions on travel from South Africa have been put in place.
Anyone who has been in South Africa in the last fortnight, and those who have been in contact with them, must now quarantine.
He added: "These measures are temporary while we investigate further this new strain which is shortly to be analysed at Porton Down."
Speaking alongside him infectious diseases expert Dr Susan Hopkins said: "The new variant in the UK which we've identified is very different to the variant in South Africa, it's got different mutations.
"Both of them look like they are more transmissible. We have more evidence on the transmission for the UK variant because we've been studying that with great detail with academic partners.
"We're still learning about the South African variant and you've heard already the measures that we're introducing to ensure that we quarantine people who are coming in from South Africa.
"Therefore, we are pretty confident actually that this system we have in place will help control the spread."
Asked if the current vaccines will work on the new strains, she added: "We have no evidence at the moment that the vaccine will not work, actually what that means, in fact, is that there's strong evidence that it will work because the vaccine produces a strong immune response and it's broad and acts against lots of variation in the virus.
"What we are doing is laboratory studies with people who have had previous infection and who have had vaccine to look and see in the laboratory how their blood kills the virus.
"Those take a number of weeks as we grow the virus and do those studies. As soon as they are available, we will of course release them."
Elsewhere on the vaccine Mr Hancock said the Oxford/AstraZeneca version has now submitted full data to the UK’s regulator for approval.
"Amid all this difficulty, the great hope for 2021 is of course the vaccine,” he said.
"The vaccine is our route out of all this and however tough this Christmas and this winter is going to be, we know that the transforming force of science is helping to find a way through.
"I'm delighted to be able to tell you that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine developed here in the UK has submitted its full data package to the MHRA for approval.
"This is the next step towards a decision on the deployment of the vaccine which is already being manufactured, including here in the UK."
And on the current Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine the health secretary said: ”I'm delighted to be able to announce that we have begun vaccination in care homes.
"We know that people who live in care homes are amongst the most vulnerable to this disease and I'm delighted that we're able to do this.
"Again, it's another enormous logistical challenge and I'm very very grateful to colleagues in the NHS and in the social care sector, who work together so hard to make this happen.
"This afternoon, it gives me great joy to tell you that the Chelsea Pensioners will be vaccinated, along with care home residents right across the country.
"I think we all need a bit of good news and the reality is this vaccine programme is the way we're going to get through this because every time somebody is vaccinated our country becomes a little bit safer, they become a little bit safer and we get a little bit closer to the life that we all want to get back to."
He finished by saying said: "This Christmas and the start of 2021 is going to be tough. The new variant makes everything much harder because it spreads so much faster.
"But we mustn't give up now, we know that we can control this virus, we know we can get through this together, we're going to get through it by suppressing the virus until a vaccine can make us safe."