Covid: Christmas mixing banned in London and south-east as they go into tier 4

Households in London and the south-east England are to be banned from mixing over the festive period, while in the rest of the country, three households will be able to meet indoors on Christmas Day only, Boris Johnson has announced.

Giving an update from Downing Street, the prime minister also said London and the south-east will move into a tier 4 from midnight, with lockdown restrictions coming into force.

Speaking alongside Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance, Boris Johnson said the tightening of the restrictions is linked to the spread of a mutant variant of Covid-19 which scientists believe is spreading more quickly than the previous form.

This new variant is most prevalent in the south-east of England.

Under the new tier 4 restrictions, a stay at home message will be put into law with exemptions for education, childcare and exercise.

All non-essential retail, indoor leisure, entertainment and beauty care (such as hairdressers and nail bars) will be forced to close. 

Indoor hospitality, such as pubs, restaurants and cafes are already shut in these areas as they are in tier 3.

The following areas will be under tier 4:

  • Kent
  • Buckinghamshire
  • Berkshire
  • Surrey (excluding Waverley)
  • The boroughs of Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings
  • All 32 London boroughs and the city of London.
  • Bedford
  • Central Bedfordshire
  • Milton Keynes
  • Luton
  • Peterborough
  • Hertfordshire
  • Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring)

The new rules for tier 4 which come into force from midnight are:

  • People are advised not to enter tier 4 areas and residents in tier must not stay overnight away from home
  • Travelling abroad is banned
  • You should work from home. Where you cannot, you are still able to travel to work
  • Non-essential shops will be shut
  • Indoor leisure such as gyms and swimming pools will be shut
  • Indoor entertainment such as cinemas and bowling alleys will be shut
  • Beauty services, such as hairdressers and nail bars will be shut
  • One person can meet with one person from another household outdoors

Support bubbles and childcare bubbles are exempt from the rules, and people are allowed outdoors for unlimited exercise.

The rules will be in place for two weeks and then will be reviewed.

Commenting on changes to Christmas rules, Mr Johnson said that as prime minster he believed there was “no alternative open to me”.

He said: “Without action the evidence suggests that infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives.”

Mr Johnson added: “Yes Christmas this year will be different, very different.

“We’re sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so that we have a better chance of protecting their loves, so that we can see them at future Christmases.

“And as sure as night follows day we will beat this virus, we’ll defeat it and reclaim our lives.”

He continued that he “bitterly regretted” the changes to the Christmas arrangements, but added they are “necessary”.

“When the facts change you have to change your approach,” the PM said.

“The briefing that I had yesterday about this mutation of the virus, particularly about the speed of transmission, was not possible to ignore.”

Prof Whitty said anyone thinking of heading out of London and the south-east before the lockdown measures come into force should “unpack” their bags.

The introduction of tier 4 and severe restrictions around Christmas come amid soaring coronavirus cases, particularly in London and south-east England where a new Covid variant has been identified.

On Saturday, a further 534 people died with 28 days of a coronavirus test while a further 27,052 people tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the UK total since the start of the pandemic to more than two million cases.

Mr Johnson said the new restrictions were necessary because of the spread of a variant coronavirus which was transmitting faster than the original.

The PM said the new variant may be up to 70% more transmissible and could increase the R value (the rate at which Covid spreads) by 0.4.

He told the briefing: “It seems that this spread is now being driven by the new variant of the virus that we spoke about earlier this week.

“Our advisers on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) have spent the last few days analysing this new variant – there’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or higher mortality but it does appear to be passed on significantly more quickly.”

On Friday, it was announced that the R rate had risen to between 1.1 and 1.2 across the country, meaning on average, 10 people with Covid will pass it on to 11 or 12 others, meaning the rate of the illness will increase exponentially.

Speaking during the Downing Street update, Prof Whitty highlighted the speed at which the new Covid variant is increasing: “This new variant not only moves fast – but it is beating all the other variants,” he said.

Sir Patrick Vallance said that three questions needed to be asked about the new variant of coronavirus; whether it could be transmitted more readily, if it made people sicker, and whether it altered the immune response caused by vaccines.

He said the variant, which was thought to have emerged in mid-September in London or Kent, had a “significant substantial increase in transmissibility”.

Sir Patrick added that by December over 60% of infections in the capital had been the new variant, saying: “It moves fast and is becoming the dominant variant.”

Speaking earlier on Saturday, a spokesperson for the prime minister said the weekly average case rate has increased by more than 66% compared to two weeks previously.

In London, this has almost doubled in the last week and the new variant accounts for 60% of all new infections in London. 

ITV News’ Science Editor Tom Clarke says virologists have told him that the new Covid variant is very ‘transmissible’ but ‘there is no reason to think’ vaccines will not work on it

Speaking ahead of the Downing Street briefing, a spokesperson for the prime minister said that during November’s lockdown, the number of Covid cases in Kent did not fall and they are continuing to rise with the county under tier 3 restrictions, indicating that tier 3 measures are not strong enough to contain the spread of the virus and that a new fourth tier is required where the prevalence of the respiratory disease is highest.

Speaking earlier on Saturday, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said that while new Covid variant spreads “more quickly” than the type we have been living with for months, “there is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments” but further study would be needed to assess this.

The Downing Street update came after Mr Johnson held a Cabinet meeting to discuss the impact of the new Covid strain.

He also spoke to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and the leaders of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Mr Johnson also revealed 350,000 people in the UK have so far received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.-ITV