Boris Johnson cancelled Christmas for millions of people across London and the South East today, saying he had ‘no alternative’ as the mutant strain of COVID-19 is up to ‘70 per cent more transmissible’.
At a hastily convened press conference at 4pm, the PM made a dramatic U-turn and put London and parts of the South East and east of England into a new ‘tier 4’ lockdown – with a ban on non-essential travel, retail, and indoor household mixing.
Johnson said he was forced to act by worrying new data emerging over recent days, and that despite his ‘heavy heart’ there was ‘no alternative open to me’.
“I know how much emotion people invest at this time of year and how important it is for grandparents to see their grandchildren, and for families to be together,” he said.
“But we have said throughout this pandemic that we must and we will be guided by the science.”
Johnson also upended advice for the rest of England, and areas falling in tiers 1-3. Previous advice that up to three households could mix for five days has now been restricted to only mixing on Christmas Day.
Johnson said the virus is spreading more rapidly in London, the South East, and east of England and, if left unchecked, would overwhelm the NHS as tier 3 was ‘not delivering results’ as expected.
“The spread is now being driven by the new variant of the virus,” Johnson confirmed. He said a team of specialist advisers have been analysing the new strain of COVID-19, thought to have originated in London or Kent in mid-September.
There is no evidence the variant has higher mortality rates, leads to more serious illness, or that the vaccine will be less effective against it.
However, early research has found it spreads more easily, with scientists saying it could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original form of COVID-19. This research has now been passed onto the WHO.
“We have to act on information as we have it because this is now spreading very fast,” Johnson said, before announcing Christmas bubbles in tier 4 were off the table, and describing overall tier 4 restrictions as ‘broadly equivalent’ to the national lockdown.
People in all the areas covered by the new rules may travel to work if working from home is not possible (for example for construction or manufacturing roles) but shouldn’t enter or leave their tier or stay overnight anywhere else. Non-essential travel abroad is also banned.
Those in tier 4 can only meet one person from another household outdoors but, in one difference to previous lockdowns, communal worship can continue. Support bubbles can continue but only for the most vulnerable people.
Tier 4 will take effect from tomorrow morning and be next reviewed on December 30. There will be no relaxation over New Year.
Across the UK, new advice on travel is also being issued as the new variant is present at lower levels around the country. As a result, the government is asking everyone to ‘stay local’.
Chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, revealed that by December 9, over 60 per cent of new cases in London were attributed to the new strain – meaning It is not only spreading fast but rapidly becoming the dominant variant.
According to the latest data, the UK’s R number is estimated at 1.1 to 1.2, with a daily infection growth rate range of +1 per cent to +4 per cent. In the last 24 hours there were 27,052 new confirmed cases across the with a further 534 deaths.
Responding to the announcement, Southwark Council leader Kieron Williams said: “Sadly, London’s cases have increased exponentially and the government has responded by placing the capital in tier 4.
“This means tougher restrictions for people in Southwark where rates have doubled in a week.
“I am so sorry for all of you who had planned to travel, see relatives or try to enjoy the festive season.
“But we must all be reminded of the seriousness of keeping to the rules.
“Lives are at greater risk and together we must follow those rules to keep everyone safe and save lives.”