Nearly eight in 10 people in England will be under stay-at-home orders from New Year’s Eve, the government has confirmed, after the new variant of Covid-19 contributed to a record rise in infections across the country.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced that another 21 million people – including all of the north-east of England, Greater Manchester, large parts of the Midlands and the south-west – would be in the strictest tier 4 rules from Thursday morning.
It came as the UK reported another 981 Covid-related deaths, the highest daily toll since April, and a further 50,023 infections in the last 24 hours. The large increase in deaths may in part be due to a lag in reporting deaths over the Christmas period.
The new measures mean 78% of England will be covered by the strictest “stay at home” restrictions, including the closure of non-essential shops and strict one-to-one outdoor meeting limits between households. Everywhere else, apart from 2,224 people on the Isles of Scilly, will be in tier 3.
All of mainland Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are already in the tightest restrictions, meaning the closure of hospitality and non-essential retail.
The scale of the new restrictions in England stunned many MPs and council leaders, coming only 10 days after tier 4 was introduced for the first time in London and parts of the south-east in response to the rapidly spreading variant.
Leaders in north-east England called for a national lockdown to curb the spread of the disease and focus efforts on the rollout of two vaccines. “This is a national problem and a national solution is required now,” they said after Hancock announced the new measures in the Commons.
The infection rate in England increased by a third in the week to Christmas Eve, while the number of Covid patients admitted to hospital rose 8% on the week before to 14,915 people.
The number of Covid patients in English hospitals surpassed the first-wave peak on Sunday, with 21,787 people in hospital with the disease on Tuesday morning and numbers expected to rise further as cases climb.
On Tuesday, cases reached a record high, with 53,135 reported in the UK, including 47,164 in England. The Covid variant discovered earlier this month accounted for a majority of all new cases in London, the south-east and east of England, Hancock said on Wednesday.
Areas moved into tier 4 include all of the Midlands except Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin, and Rutland, which will all be in tier 3. In the north-west, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen, Cheshire, Warrington and Cumbria will be in tier 4. Liverpool will be moved up to tier 3.
In the south-west, Gloucestershire, Swindon, Somerset, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole will be in tier 4, while the remainder of the region – including Cornwall, Devon and Dorset – will be moved up to tier 3.
Hancock told the Commons that Wednesday was “a day of mixed emotions” due to the announcement of the new restrictions hours after the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was approved by the UK’s medical regulator.
He told MPs: “It brings forward the day on which we can lift the restrictions that no one in this house wants to see any longer than are absolutely necessary. But we must act to suppress the virus now, not least because the new variant makes the time between now and then even more difficult.
“And so whilst we have the good news of the vaccine today, we also have to take some difficult decisions.”
Hancock said he knew the measures would place a significant burden on businesses and livelihoods but that it was “absolutely necessary because of the number of cases that we have seen”.
Andy Street, the Conservative mayor of the West Midlands, said the tier 3 rules had been unable to halt an increase in cases across the region. He said he would continue to press the Treasury for more financial support for businesses, adding: “I will continue to make the case vociferously to government, and will not relent until we achieve a breakthrough.”