The UK has reported a further 35,928 coronavirus cases today as the mutant Covid strain causes a 94.8 per cent rise in infections.
The spike in positive tests puts today’s figure at nearly double the 18,447 recorded last Sunday.
The strain – called ‘VUI – 202012/01’ – is 70 per cent more infectious and makes up 60 per cent of London’s new cases, Boris Johnson revealed yesterday.
He also warned that the strain could increase the crucial R rate by 0.4.
Tier 4 regulations involve closing non-essential shops and travel restrictions including ‘stay at home’ order for Christmas Day itself – even though Mr Johnson insisted just days ago that five-day festive ‘bubbles’ would go ahead.
The UK has reported a further 35,928 coronavirus cases today as the mutant Covid strain causes a 94.8 per cent rise in infections
The extraordinary U-turn has caused outrage among families that have already made plans, booked travel and bought food for reunions.
Since the move was announced last night, extra police have been deployed at major train stations in the capital – including King’s Cross, St Pancras, Waterloo and Euston – as Londoners tried to flee the capital.
In a round of TV interviews this morning, Matt Hancock hit out at ‘totally irresponsible’ Londoners who escaped the capital last night and warned that police would stop people from leaving the Tier 4 city.
The Health Secretary told people living in London and parts of the South and East of England living in the toughest tier regime to ‘unpack their bags’ and ‘reduce social contact’ as he hinted that Tier 4 restrictions could be in place for months while the Government rolled out its mass vaccination programme.
He said ‘of course’ police will enforce the new law and will prevent people from leaving Tier 4 areas, as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps warned extra British Transport Police officers would be deployed at railway stations in the capital to ‘ensure that only essential journeys take place’.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that the new strain of coronavirus is ‘out of control’ in Tier 4 areas of England
The Met Police today warned that the ‘most dangerous and flagrant breaches’ of Tier 4 regulations now in force will see fines given out, tweeting: ‘Don’t risk a fine in the lead up to Christmas’.
The move also gave Britons just eight hours to complete their gift shopping last night ahead of Christmas Day.
Shoppers descended on London’s high streets in their droves, with pictures showing Oxford Street and Regent Street flooded with panic buyers late into the night.
Covid-19 warning sign is displayed on the A3 Roehampton Vale, South West London as the capital enters Tier 4
Traffic flows over the Dartford Bridge crossing into Kent as Boris Johnson effectively cancelled Christmas for millions
A rather quiet M4 near Port Talbot in south Wales on Sunday morning at the start of the Christmas lockdown period
But the first day of Tier 4 was a totally different story – with the jam-packed streets of yesterday evening looking nearly deserted today.
Wales was also thrust into a full lockdown from midnight last night – forcing all non-essential shops to close their doors and slashing Christmas bubbles to a single day.
Pictures today emerged of a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Pontypridd which blocked off non-essential sections of the store – including clothing and Christmas decorations – to customers.
Nicola Sturgeon said at her own press conference that a ban on cross-border travel is being upgraded – and Scotland will also see a one-day only rule on Christmas bubbles.
The move has caused chaos, with the PM facing accusations of ‘inconsistency’ after the last minute U-turn, with Tories calling for Cabinet resignations and a review of the data used to create the fourth tier.
The first day of Tier 4 saw the same streets that were jam-packed yesterday evening looking like a ghost town today (Oxford Circus, pictured)
The draconian bracket saw non-essential shops shut from midnight giving Britons just eight hours to complete all their gift shopping last night ahead of Christmas day on Friday. Pictured: Deserted high streets today
Bluewater shopping centre in Stone, Kent, was almost deserted today after Boris Johnson thrust 18 million Britons into Tier 4
Kent’s Bluewater shopping centre was nearly empty as all non-essential stores were forced to close their doors this December
Members of the public queued to enter Waitrose in Marylebone, London, on the morning after Tier 4 restrictions came into place
Meanwhile the UK’s European neighbours, including Italy, Holland, Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic have banned flights from the UK, with Germany and Ireland also considering limiting passengers.
Mr Hancock today warned that the new mutant strain of coronavirus is ‘out of control’ as he suggested draconian Tier 4 restrictions could be in place ‘until we have the vaccine rolled out’.
The Health Secretary said people in Tier 4 areas should behave as if they are infected in order to combat the new variant of the disease which spreads quicker than its predecessor.
Mr Hancock said the new strain can be caught ‘more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present’ as he confirmed areas subject to the toughest restrictions are likely to be in the top tier for the long haul.
The Cabinet minister said ‘we have got a long way to go to sort this’ and it will be ‘very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out’.
Oxford Street saw a mad rush of shoppers who flocked to buy their Christmas presents before the city was plunged into Tier 4 at midnight
Wales was also thrust into a full lockdown from midnight last night – forcing all non-essential shops to close their doors and slashing Christmas bubbles to a single day. Pictures today emerged of a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Pontypridd which blocked off non-essential sections of the store to customers (pictured)
Clothing and Christmas decorations were among the areas cut off to shoppers at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Pontypridd
Mr Hancock told Sophy Ridge on Sky News: ‘We don’t want to do any of this but it is necessary. This has been an awful end to what has been an incredibly difficult year and on Friday when we were presented with that new scientific evidence about the new variant it was our duty to act.
‘From being presented on Friday afternoon with the strength of how easy this new variant finds it to transmit from one human to another, we acted very quickly and decisively with the announcements that the Prime Minister set out yesterday.
‘I just think everybody watching will feel this sense that we both feel of disappointment and that it is just so difficult ahead of Christmas, which everybody was really looking forward to after all the sacrifices that have been made.
Italy, Belgium and Holland BAN flights from the UK into the New Year
Several European countries are imposing bans on flights from the UK in an attempt to make sure that a new strain of coronavirus sweeping parts of southern England does not reach their shores.
The Netherlands is banning flights from the UK for at least the rest of the year while Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio also announced curbs were being imposed.
Belgium’s prime minister issued a ban for at least 24 hours while the situation was assessed.
The Netherlands ban came into effect on Sunday morning and the government said it was reacting to tougher measures imposed in London and surrounding areas on Saturday by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Netherlands said it will assess ‘with other European Union nations the possibilities to contain the import of the virus from the United Kingdom’.
Mr Johnson said a fast-moving new variant of the virus that is 70% more transmissible than existing strains appears to be driving the rapid spread of new infections in London and southern England.
‘There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,’ the Prime Minister stressed, or that vaccines will be less effective against it.
The Dutch government is already strongly advising its citizens not to travel unless absolutely necessary.
Britain has alerted the World Health Organisation that the new variant identified this week appears to be accelerating the spread of Covid-19, saying it accounted for some 60% of the capital’s cases.
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands different of mutations among samples of the virus causing Covid-19.
But many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.
Belgium has also banned flights from the UK and also banned rail connections.
Belgian prime minister Alexander De Croo said he was issuing the order for 24 hours starting at midnight ‘out of precaution’.
‘There are a great many questions about this new mutation and if it is not already on the mainland,’ he said.
He hoped to have more clarity as of Tuesday.
Italian foreign minister Luigi Di Maio said his country would also take action.
Mr Di Maio tweeted: ‘As the Government we have the duty to protect Italians, for this reason, after having advised the English (sic) Government, with the health ministry we are signing the measure to suspend flights with Great Britain.’
Austria and the Czech Republic were also imposing new measures against UK flights.
Meanwhile, Germany is also considering limiting flights from Britain, the dpa news agency reported on Sunday.
A high-ranking German government official told the agency that restrictions on flights from Britain were a ‘serious option.’
The German government, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency, is in close contact with its European neighbours on the developing situation, dpa reported.
‘But unfortunately this virus, the new strain, was out of control. We have got to get it under control and the way that we can do that, the only way you can do that, is by restricting social contact and essentially, especially in Tier 4 areas, everybody needs to behave as if they might well have the virus and that is the way that we can get it under control and keep people safe.’
The Health Secretary said the new variant of the disease was more easily transmitted than its predecessor which left the Government with no choice but to act.
He said: ‘We just know that this new variant you can catch it more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present.’
Mr Hancock said the increased risk posed by the new variant meant existing measures to combat the spread of the disease, like wearing face masks and social distancing, would have to be stepped up.
‘All of the different measures that we have in place, we need more of them to control the spread of the new variant than we did to control the spread of the old variant, that is the fundamental problem,’ he said.
The roll-out of coronavirus vaccines is now underway across the UK, with the Government hoping to give the jab to millions of vulnerable people by the Spring.
Mr Hancock suggested Tier 4 measures could be in place until the vaccine has been widely distributed, raising the prospect of millions of people being told to stay at home for months.
He said: ‘We have really got to get this under control and the cases in the Tier 4 areas… have absolutely rocketed in the last few days, last two weeks or so.
‘We have got a long way to go to sort this. Essentially we have got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe.’
He added: ‘I think that given how much faster this new variant spreads it is going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out.’
Public Health England warned that the new variant of coronavirus sweeping London and the South East has spread to other parts of the UK – but cases were in much smaller numbers than in the capital, Kent and parts of Essex.
Dr Susan Hopkins told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: ‘It has been detected in many other parts of the country. Every region has cases but with very small numbers.
‘It has also been detected in Wales, in Scotland, we have not had any detected in Northern Ireland.’
Dr Hopkins also said that she hoped people who had crammed onto trains out of London after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday the capital was one of the areas going into the new Tier 4 would reduce their contacts.
Dr Hopkins said: ‘I understand people’s wish to get home to their families and loved ones that they may live with on a normal day-to-day basis and wanted to get out of London last night.
‘I hope that when they go to wherever they are moving to they reduce their social contacts and don’t contact anyone outside their household for the next 10 days, as that will help minimise the risk of transmission to other parts of the country.
‘We know it’s in other parts of the country in small amounts but what we are trying to do is prevent more spread and rapid increases across the rest of the country.’
Dr Hopkins said that while the new strain had been identified in October from a sample taken in September it was not until Friday that its higher transmissibility was confirmed.
When asked on Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday why Mr Johnson was still insisting on Wednesday that it would be ‘inhuman’ to cancel Christmas, she said: ‘We did not have the modelling evidence to show that the transmissibility was increased or that the R value was increased on Wednesday.’
The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned on Saturday that the new variant was becoming the dominant strain, with a rapid rise in cases in recent days.
But Dr Hopkins said there was no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus was causing a disproportionate number of hospital admissions.
She said: ‘We have got no signals, so the first signals we would expect to see is in the South East where this has definitely increased over weeks now.
‘But what we know is the more cases we have in the community with this virus the more cases we are seeing in hospital. But we are not seeing a disproportionate number of people being admitted to hospital over the last two weeks and we are not seeing any increases in mortality yet.’
Dr Hopkins said there was evidence that there was evidence of people with the new variant having higher viral loads of the virus.
But she said a higher viral load did not mean people were going to get more ill, adding: ‘The illness comes from the immune response and how it reacts in your lungs – that’s where we know the illness really starts to be driven from and why people need oxygen.
‘The higher amount of the virus means that people are likely to be more infectious than they would otherwise be and this means we need to reiterate the social distancing measures.’
Dr Hopkins said that until further studies are carried out there cannot be certainty the vaccine will be effective against the new Covid-19 variant.
She added: ‘We won’t know for definite until we have further studies.
‘The vaccine induces a strong, multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response is going to be completely gone.’
Wales’ health minister Vaughan Gething said today the ‘mutant’ strain of coronavirus is also a factor in the rapid rise of cases in Wales.
He told BBC News On Sunday that the new variant was ‘effectively seeded’ across the country. He also said that the decision to place the country immediately into lockdown ahead of Christmas was due to the information that the new strain was leading to faster spread of the virus.
Mr Gething added: ‘Unfortunately our rates are around about 600 per 100,000, they are very high across the country with large concentrations in the south of Wales but also north-east Wales has been particularly affected as well.
‘This has been a very difficult decision for many people here in Wales, I know people have been frustrated and there are some people who are angry but we are having to make these choices to try to keep people safe.
‘We have already moved ahead of the rest of the UK in changing our rules about Christmas mixing when new information about the new variant, and the fact it does appear to be generating a much more rapid growth of the virus, really does mean that we need to act.’
When asked if the new variant was in Wales as well as the London and parts of the south east and east of England, Mr Gething said: ‘I’m afraid the new variant is here in Wales as well.
‘The undoubtable truth is this new variant is effectively seeded across the country, so acting now takes account of the fact that this new variant is undoubtedly a factor, we can’t say how much of a factor, in the rapid growth in cases across south Wales despite the measures we have taken.’