Millions of people across England will be placed under the tightest restrictions from Thursday as the government aims to halt the rapid spread of coronavirus.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, announced on Wednesday that large parts of the country would be moved into the highest tier of restrictions, which means non-essential shops, pubs and restaurants must close, as well as gyms and leisure centres.
The new restrictions were announced as infection rates soared, thanks to a new, more virulent variant of coronavirus. On Wednesday 50,023 new cases were reported across the UK, including 43,554 in England.
There were 981 deaths within 28 days of a positive test from the virus across the UK, according to figures from the department of health. The number of people admitted to hospital with Covid-19 also jumped by 18 per cent.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents health organisations across the UK, said the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on Wednesday “must not distract either the government or the public from the need to reduce the rapid increase in Covid-19 infections.
“NHS staff are combating the usual winter pressures while trying to maintain routine services, alongside unprecedented numbers of Covid-19 patients. The consequences are likely to be profound, both in terms of loss of life in the immediate term and also long-term harm to health,” he said.
Areas that will move into tier 4 include North East England, Cumbria, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottingham, Northamptonshire, Tees Valley, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Swindon, Bournemouth and the Isle of Wight.
Most of the West Midlands will be under the top restrictions, along with all of the East Midlands except Rutland. In total, 44m people — 78 per cent of England’s population — will be in tier 4.
Mr Hancock told MPs the latest measures were “absolutely necessary” given the rise of coronavirus cases. “We must act to suppress the virus now, not least because the new variant makes the time between now and then even more difficult,” he said.
The Liverpool city region, Cornwall, Devon, York and North Yorkshire will move into tier 3 from midnight. Non-essential shops can remain open but indoor socialising is forbidden. A total of 12m people will be in tier 3 restrictions.
Nowhere in England will be in tier 2 after the latest assessment of the coronavirus data and only the Isles of Scilly, 25 miles off the Cornish coast, will be in the lowest tier.
Steve Rotheram, metro mayor of Liverpool city region, said that cases were rising across the region despite the mass testing pilot it carried out in November to find asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
“Being put into tier 3 is something none of us wanted but I’m hopeful these new measures can help slow down and contain the spread of the virus, which has seen an alarming uptick in recent weeks,” he said.
Andy Street, mayor of the West Midlands, said the tier 3 restrictions there had not worked, with the weekly rate per 100,000 people rising from 188 to 300 since the beginning of December.
“Whilst it is incredibly frustrating to face yet more restrictions, we cannot escape the fact that this deadly virus is once again spreading to more people across the West Midlands,” he said.
The Conservative mayor urged the government to improve support for closed businesses. “The current government grant scheme is not sufficient to keep viable businesses afloat,” he said.
Colin Cox, director of public health for Cumbria, said the new coronavirus variant was to blame for the rising case numbers that had lifted the county from tier 2 to tier 4. “The rate of spread as a result of the new strain is exceptionally quick and this is why decisive and immediate action is required,” he said.