The highest number of deaths from Covid since April and the discovery of another new variant of the virus have led to sharp warnings that ministers are acting too slowly, waiting until Boxing Day to put 6 million people on the strictest limits.
England will be placed below a curb-like curb as of Saturday, Health Minister Matt Hancock said as the UK recorded 744 deaths – the most since late April – and 39,237 cases.
In total, 42% of England – almost 24 million people – will be at level 4 and an additional 44% (almost 25 million) at level 3. With the virus rising 57% a week in the country and the number R rising to 1-1.3, the Scilly Islands are the only remaining area in Level 1.
The introduction of new measures on Boxing Day will leave millions of people in the hardest hit areas free to mingle indoors with up to three households on Christmas when restrictions are eased 24 hours a day.
One expert warned that delaying “critical days” would mean “the number of cases will be much, much higher” and “much harder to bring down”.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have announced national restrictions in recent days in an attempt to curb a new version announced last week, which appeared in Kent and is said to be up to 70% more contagious. On Wednesday, the Northern Ireland Ministry of Health confirmed a positive test in the region for a new variant of Covid-19, which was first discovered in the UK.
During a press conference in Downing Street on Wednesday to unveil the new steps, Hancock revealed details of another variant of Covid related to South Africa that was found in the UK.
Late Wednesday, the UK government announced that it would ban visitors from South Africa or those who have passed through the country in the last 10 days from entering England from 9am on Christmas Eve and ban direct flights.
The ban excludes freight and freight without passengers, and also does not include British and Irish nationals, visa holders and permanent residents, who can still enter but must self-isolate along with their household for 10 days.
Hancock also said coronavirus cases have risen by 57% nationwide in the past seven days, from nearly 19,000 in hospital with the virus.
Hancock added: “In the context of growing infections, growing hospitalizations and the growing number of people dying from coronavirus, it is absolutely necessary to act. We just can’t have the kind of Christmas we all long for. “
He also said: “We know that the three-tier system worked to control the old variant and is now working in large parts of the country, especially in northern England. But we also know that level 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. “
Dr Andrew Preston, a reader of microbiological pathogenesis at the University of Bath, said: “The situation is rapid and requires decisive decision-making. Today, the government has recognized that the situation continues to deteriorate in many areas and that stricter restrictions are needed if it hopes to maintain it.
“With such a rapid growth of cases, a delay of three critical days – with a new entry that will not take effect until Boxing Day – will mean that by then the number of cases will be much, much higher and as a result much, much harder to bring down. If the focus is retention, unfortunately, the restrictions must be immediate, despite the fall that will cause it. “
Prior to the announcement, Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London, said waiting until Boxing Day to put more areas at level 4 was too slow.
She told Times Radio: “We are in an incredibly dangerous situation … If we just wait and let it spread north, where things are much more under control, then the whole country is on fire and I just feel we have to stop it now and protect north from south, efficiently. “
She added: “We are always behind the curve. I think today we have to put the whole country in level 4, especially in those level 2 areas around level 4 that are just going through the roof. Why do we allow people to interfere on Christmas? Just looking for trouble. “