Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt
More of the east and south east of England will enter the toughest Tier 4 lockdown on Boxing Day, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced.
The announcement means an additional 6 million people will be under the Government's strictest Covid restrictions meaning a total of 24 million people will be in Tier 4 - 43% of the population of England.
At a press conference at Downing Street on Wednesday he said that Tier 3 measures were not enough to control the new variant of the virus as cases around England surge.
Mr Hancock also announced new travel restrictions for people arriving from South Africa after a new strain from the country had been identified in two cases in the UK that appears to have "mutated further" than the new variant in the UK.
From just after midnight on Boxing Day the following areas will move to Tier 4 measures:
Parts of Essex not yet in Tier 4
Waverley in Surrey
Hampshire with the exception of the New Forest
The Health Secretary told the press conference: "Just as we’ve got a tiered system in place that was able to control this virus, we’ve discovered a new more contagious virus, a variant that is spreading at a dangerous rate."
He added: “Against this backdrop of rising infections, rising hospitalisations and rising numbers of people dying from coronavirus it is absolutely vital that we act."
"We simply cannot have the kind of Christmas we all yearn for," he said. "Christmas is about social contact and that is what the virus thrives on.
"So it’s important we all minimise our social contact as much as is possible this Christmasthat will help protect ourselves, our loved ones and the country."
Mr Hancock added: "We know that the three-tiered system worked to control the old variant and is working now in large parts of the country especially in northern England.
"Tier 3 is not enough to control the new variant, this is not a hypothesis it is a fact and we have seen it on the ground."
He added: "We’ve seen case rates rise in some of the places close to where the current Tier 4 restrictions are in places like East Anglia where we are seeing a significant number of the new variant and we’ve seen case rates rise sharply.
“It is therefore necessary to put more of the East and South East of England into Tier 4.
“We’re also taking action in parts of the South West where there are some early signs of the new variant and where cases are rising.”
Asked why the whole country has not been put into full lockdown, Mr Hancock said: “The new variant is highly concentrated and the stay-at-home rule in the east, the south east and London is aimed at keeping this new variant from spreading across the country.
“That’s why we’ve taken the approach that we have in terms of the tiering and expanding the number of areas that are in Tier 4.”
Other areas currently in Tier 2 will be moved to stricter Tier 3 restrictions, Mr Hancock said.
These areas include:
Somerset including the North Somerset council area
the Isle of Wight
the New Forest
Cornwall and Herefordshire, which have been seeing rising rates, will be escalated to Tier 2, he said.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the number of Covid-19 patients occupying hospital beds in London is heading towards the spring peak.
She said that the sharp rise in cases "is going to need some stopping", adding: "This is not something that can be orchestrated, it is something which we all have to do."
She added: “However sad a time of year it is for us to be reminded that we need to behave that way, it is a very stark reminder that we do need to manage our own behaviours and keep our distances.
“I think, as I said earlier, there is no reason at the moment to suggest that the new variant will, if you like, turn into more severe disease or more deaths.
“But, clearly, if we have more cases then we will see rising numbers and those numbers are rising quite quickly now.”
Dr Harries added the rise was “not inevitable” with the correct actions, referencing significant measures in place around care homes including urgent testing.
She continued: “With all the hard work which the care home staff have been putting in, and the residents themselves of course in quite difficult circumstances, there are opportunities for us to ensure that these cases do not just automatically translate through into hospital cases.”
Dr Susan Hopkins said there is not yet any evidence the new strain of the virus is more transmissible in children.
Matt Hancock 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.”
He urged people to take “personal responsibility” over Christmas and also announced regular vaccination totals will start to be published from Thursday.
He said: “The whole basis of the tiered system is to take a proportionate approach to the areas where we need very firm action and other areas where we clearly need restrictions but they don’t have to be as drastic.
“Added to that, of course, is everybody’s personal responsibility. That is the critical thing this Christmas and through to the new year. It is really important people make sure that they minimise the chances of them passing on the disease.
“It’s actually by all of our actions collectively that we get this under control.”
He added: “I believe that everybody will do what is needed to keep themselves and others safe, especially this Christmas, and I know from the bottom of my heart that there are brighter skies ahead.”