Video report by ITV News Reporter Helen Keenan
Areas of London and south-east England which are under tough new Tier 4 Covid rules could be stuck under the lockdown measures until the vaccine is rolled out because the new mutant variant of coronavirus is "out of control", the health secretary has said.
From Sunday, more than 18 million people across the south-east are banned from mixing indoors and outdoors with others and retail, leisure and hospitality businesses all closed.
While coronavirus cases are rising across the country, the south-east has been put under the tougher measures due to a new mutant variant of Covid-19 which scientists believe is spreading more quickly than the previous form.
Currently six in 10 Londoners who have coronavirus have this new variant, the city's mayor said on Sunday morning.
On Saturday at a Covid briefing, Boris Johnson said this new variant was up to 70% more transmissible than the original variant.
Asked by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand if the spread of the new variant was "out of control", Matt Hancock confirmed it is and said "cases are rising very, very sharply in London, the south-east of England, Essex and Hertfordshire".
Speaking on BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Hancock warned that "there are currently just over 18,000 in NHS hospitals with coronavirus.
“That is only just below the number there were at the first peak."
The Tier 4 measures will be reviewed every two weeks.
While Mr Hancock said it was "impossible" to know how long the Tier 4 measures would be in place and he did not want them "to be in place a day longer than they need to be", earlier in the day he suggested they could remain "for many months".“Cases have absolutely rocketed, so we’ve got a long way to go," he told Sky News's Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston said he believes that two months or more of Tier 4 restrictions will lead to higher unemployment" and "business failures".
As of 8am on Saturday, more than 350,000 people had been given the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and Mr Hancock said by the end of the weekend it was hoped this figure would rise to 500,000.
He added that "more and more" people are being vaccinated each day.
The Conservative MP continued that to stop the new variant spreading even more, people should follow the rules and "everybody in a Tier 4 area [should] act as if you have the virus to stop spreading it to other people".
Mr Hancock said that ministers had had no choice but to act - including effectively cancelling Christmas for millions of people - when they were presented with the evidence of the spread of the new variant.
Explained: What are the new Covid-19 restrictions and which areas are in Tier 4?
"We don't want to do any of this but it is necessary. On Friday, when we were presented with that new scientific evidence about the new variant, it was our duty to act," he said.
"We acted very quickly and decisively with the announcements the prime minister set out yesterday."
In the rest of England, Christmas easing has been severely curtailed, with households allowed to gather for just one day - Christmas Day itself - rather than the five days previously planned.
Scotland and Wales are also restricting Christmas "bubbles" to a single day, while people in Northern Ireland have been asked to consider forming a bubble for Christmas Day only.
Sir Keir Starmer has said Labour supports the latest coronavirus restrictions but accused Mr Johnson of "gross negligence" in failing to act earlier.
"Yet again, the prime minister waited until the 11th hour to take this decision," the Labour leader told an online press conference.
"It was blatantly obvious last week that the prime minister's plan for a free-for-all over Christmas was a risk too far.
"And yet, rather than listening to concerns and taking them seriously, the prime minister did what he always does: dismissed the challenge, ruffled his hair and made a flippant comment.
"We have known about rising infections and the NHS reaching capacity in many parts of the country for weeks.
"The alarms bells have been ringing for weeks, but the prime minister chose to ignore them.
"It is an act of gross negligence by a prime minister who, once again, has been caught behind the curve."
Sir Keir Starmer also called on Mr Johnson to apologise to the public for the way the latest coronavirus restrictions had been handled.
The announcements prompted a rush to the London train stations and by 7pm on Saturday, there were no tickets available online from several London stations including Paddington, Kings Cross and Euston.
Footage posted on social media showed large crowds at St Pancras station waiting to board trains to Leeds.
Mr Hancock condemned the scenes as "totally irresponsible", while Labour said it was reckless to give people just a few hours notice of the change in plans.
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