More of the UK will enter harsh Tier 4 restrictions on Boxing Day, as COVID-19 infections rise rapidly due to a new strain of the virus.
UK health secretary Matt Hancock said cases were rising at a “dangerous rate” due to a new mutant strain of COVID-19 that is more transmissible. The mutation was discovered last week in Kent.
“The new variant makes everything harder because it spreads much faster,” Hancock said.
The health secretary announced that large swathes of England would face tough new measures from Boxing Day in response. Sussex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridge, Waverley, Hampshire, and all parts of Essex not already in Tier 4 will faced ramped up restrictions.
Tier 4 amounts to a local lockdown, with the closure of all non-essential businesses and people ordered to stay at home.
Other parts of the UK — including Bristol, Gloucestershire, and Cornwall — will be upgraded to higher tiers as cases spread.
The health secretary said another “highly concerning” new variant of COVID-19 had also been discovered in South Africa. Two cases have been identified in the UK. The South African variant is thought to be even more transmissible than the Kent strain. Government scientists are set to analyse the strain at Porton Down.
WATCH: Large swathes of East, South East and South West of England put into Tier 4
The government announced an immediate ban on travel with South Africa in response to the new strain discovered there. Anyone who has returned from the country in the last two weeks much also immediately begin quarantining.
Dr Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said the government was “pretty confident” the new measures would “control the spread” of the South African strain. Dr Hopkins, who appeared alongside Hancock, said scientists were “still learning” about the new strain.
Dr Jenny Harries, the UK’s deputy chief medical officer, said: “We expect viruses to mutate so this should not come as a surprise.”
There is no evidence that the South African strain is any more deadly than existing strains or that it is resistant to vaccines.
Hancock announced the new restrictions and discovery of the new strain at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday afternoon. He told Brits across the country to minimise social contact as much as possible over Christmas regardless of their tier level.
The expansion of Tier 4 comes as COVID-19 cases rise rapidly across the UK. New cases hit a daily record high on Tuesday. Official figures show 36,804 new cases and 691 deaths were recorded in the previous 24 hours.
The rapid rise in cases is being driven by a new strain of COVID-19, discovered last week in Kent. Hancock said the new strain was “spreading at a dangerous rate” and it was “absolutely vital” for the government to act.
“I know that these actions have consequences, I know how difficult it is, but I also know that it is right to take the action that is necessary to control this virus,” Hancock said.
On Saturday, prime minister Boris Johnson placed London and much of the South East of England in lockdown-like conditions in a bid to curb the spread of the new variant.
The restrictions pose more challenges for the UK economy, which has suffered a historic collapse in 2020. Last week the chancellor extended key government support measures for jobs and businesses until March next year.