Tier 4 restrictions extended across England to include Sussex, Norfolk and Suffolk

The UK government has taken emergency measures after the arrival of a “highly concerning” new variant of Covid-19 from South Africa. The presence of two carriers of the South African strain of the virus in Britain was announced by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, as he plunged large areas of southeast England into the toughest tier 4 restrictions from Boxing Day. He announced a temporary travel ban on South Africa, where the 501.V2 variant has been blamed for a spike in daily infections from 3,000 to more than 9,500 since the start of December, and ordered anyone who has recently arrived from or had contact with someone from the country to put themselves into a 14-day quarantine.

More than 24 million people are now set to start the new year under “stay home” orders as the government admitted that its previous three-tier system was not strong enough to prevent the spread of the separate variant of coronavirus believed to have originated in a single person in Kent and thought, like the South African strain, to be far more infectious than the original virus. Announcing the restrictions which will shut non-essential shops in the Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Oxfordshire, Sussex, Essex, Surrey and all of Hampshire except the New Forest from a minute past midnight on 26 December, Mr Hancock said: “Tier 3 is not enough to control the new variant. This is not a hypothesis.

It is a fact. And we’ve seen it on the ground.” New figures recorded 744 deaths across the whole UK on Wednesday – the highest daily figure since 29 April, bringing the pandemic total to 69,051.

The daily tally of new cases stood at 39,237 new cases. Average hospital admissions with Covid hit 1,909 a day last week, matching rates last seen at the height of the first wave in mid-April. The crucial rate of reproduction – known as R – was revised upwards from 1.1-1.2 to 1.1-1.3, meaning that every 10 contagious people are infecting 11 to 13 others.

Inside Politics newsletter

The latest news on Brexit, politics and beyond direct to your inbox every weekday

Inside Politics newsletter

The latest news on Brexit, politics and beyond direct to your inbox every weekday

The new restrictions reflect the rapid spread of the new variant from Kent to London and then out into counties all around the capital.

Mr Hancock said it was “spreading at a dangerous rate” and had driven a 57 per cent rise in cases across the country over the past week, forcing the tightening of controls further away, including on some areas that had only been moved out of tier 3 a matter of days ago.

Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Swindon, Northamptonshire, Cheshire and Warrington all move up to tier 3, requiring pubs and restaurants to close except for takeaways and deliveries. The Isle of Wight is moved directly from tier 1 up to tier 3. And Cornwall and Herefordshire will move from tier 1 to tier 2, leaving only the Isles of Scilly under the mildest level of controls in England.

But some scientists warned that the escalation of controls was not happening fast enough. Dr Andrew Preston, reader in Microbial Pathogenesis at the University of Bath, said: “We have seen throughout this pandemic that only the more severe restrictions impact the spread of the virus. With cases rising so quickly, the delay of three critical days, with new tiering not taking effect until Boxing Day, will mean that by then, case numbers are going to be much, much higher, and as a result, much, much more difficult to bring down. “If containment is the focus, then unfortunately, the restrictions need to be immediate, despite the fallout this will cause.”

And Christina Pagel of University College London said the whole country should have been put straight into tier 4, telling Times Radio: “Why are we letting people mix at Christmas? We are just asking for trouble … The worse it gets, the harder it will be to open schools in January.”

Mr Hancock said that the South African virus was “highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant that has been discovered in the UK”. Both of the carriers identified in the UK were contacts of people who had travelled from South Africa in the past few weeks, said Mr Hancock. Samples of the new variant are to be studied by UK scientists at Porton Down to better understand its contagiousness and threat to human health. 

Speaking alongside Mr Hancock, Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said there was no evidence to suggest vaccines would be ineffective against the new variant. “We have no evidence at the moment that the vaccine will not work,” she said. “In fact there’s strong evidence that it will work because the vaccine produces a strong immune response and it’s broad and acts against lots of variation in the virus.” Hopes of a sharply accelerated rate of vaccination were fuelled by the confirmation from Oxford academic Sir John Bell, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, that the jab developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca could be approved for use “just after” Christmas.

Warwick Medical School professor Lawrence Young said it was nonetheless “essential that we do everything possible to prevent the South African variant from spreading to the UK population”.   “Quarantine measures and restricting travel from and to South Africa are imperative,” he said. CBI deputy director-general Josh Hardie said businesses will need more support to deal with the “insurmountable pressure” of workplaces, shops and hospitality venues closing in increasing areas of the country.

“The government should revisit support in January to ensure businesses across the UK make it through beyond spring,” said Mr Hardie. And TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the new restrictions were “another hammer blow for struggling parts of the economy like hospitality and retail”. “Without more support from the government, jobs will be lost and businesses will close,” she warned.

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Families across the country will be understandably alarmed and anxious at the escalation in the prevalence of this horrific virus. “Ministers need to act quickly. The usual Boris Johnson dither has disastrous consequences.

It’s fiercely urgent that ministers increase vaccination roll-out to save lives and minimise harm.”