Covid-19: 'Our duty' to act over Christmas plans, says Matt Hancock

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Matt Hancock: "If you act like you have the virus, that will stop the virus from spreading to others"

The government does not want to cancel Christmas but it is "our duty" to act as a new coronavirus variant is "out of control", the health secretary says.

A strict new lockdown in London, the South East and east of England could last for months, Matt Hancock said.

Millions of people across the UK have seen their festive plans severely restricted or scrapped.

On Sunday, the number of recorded daily infections in the UK reached an all-time high of 35,928 new cases.

The figure is nearly twice the number of cases - 18,447 - reported a week ago.

However, it is thought the infection rate was higher during the first peak in spring, with testing capacity too limited at the time to detect the true number of daily cases.

Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said: "This sharp and sudden increase is of serious concern.

"Most of the new cases reported today are concentrated in London and the South East, although it is too early to tell if this is linked to the new variant."

A growing number of countries have banned travel from the UK - including Ireland, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands - over the new variant.

The government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group estimates this variant could increase the R number - which indicates if an epidemic is growing or shrinking - by between 0.4 and 0.9, newly released minutes show.

Some 21 million people in England and Wales who entered new restrictions at midnight are being told to stay at home, while non-essential shops and businesses have to close.

The planned relaxation of rules for Christmas has been scrapped for those under England's toughest new tier four measures, while in the rest of England, Scotland and Wales, relaxed indoor mixing rules over the holidays have been cut from five days to Christmas Day only.

Mr Hancock said it was "important for everybody to act like they might have the virus" because we need to bring the new variant "under control".

He added: "Of course we don't want to cancel Christmas... we don't want to take any of these measures, but it's our duty to take them when the evidence is clear."

The health secretary said he did not know how long the tier four measures would be in place but "it may be for some time, until we can get the vaccine going".

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said his party supported the latest restrictions but he accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of "gross negligence" in failing to act earlier.

Residents in tier four are being asked to stay at home unless for essential journeys, while people in other tiers are advised not to travel into the new tier four areas.

No border 'check points'

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said it was very important that people followed the new travel guidance in England and "do not attempt to travel", saying extra British Transport Police officers were being deployed.

A ban on travel between Scotland and the rest of the UK will also apply over the festive period. Police Scotland said it would be doubling its patrols on the borders but it would not be introducing check points.

Scotland's restrictions will only be relaxed on Christmas Day, with mainland Scotland being placed under the tightest restrictions from Boxing Day.

Wales has also entered a new shutdown, with the health minister saying the new variant was "seeded" in every part.

In Northern Ireland, where the planned relaxation of rules for Christmas is going ahead unchanged, four of the five main parties have called for an urgent meeting to discuss the restrictions.

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Starmer: Boris Johnson "has once again been caught behind the curve"

The PM's announcement of new restrictions came just days after he defended plans to relax restrictions for five days during the festive period - despite calls by some in the medical profession to scrap the change.

Sir Keir told an online press conference that it was "blatantly obvious last week" that Mr Johnson's plans to relax the rules over Christmas was "a risk too far", adding that his claim that "this is all down to a new form of the virus that has just emerged does not stand up to scrutiny".

He said the "alarm bells have been ringing for weeks" with rising infections and the NHS reaching capacity in some parts of the country "but the prime minister chose to ignore" it.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan told BBC Breakfast the "11th-hour announcement is a bitter blow" for families and businesses, saying it is the "chop-change, stop-start, that's led to so much anguish, despair, sadness and disappointment".

He urged Londoners to follow the rules which he said had been brought in "for a very good reason", adding that the NHS had told him that hospitals in London had as many Covid patients this weekend as they did at the peak of the virus in April.

Tier four restrictions:

Similar to England's second national lockdown - tier four applies to Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey (excluding Waverley), Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings.

It also applies in London (all 32 boroughs and the City of London) and the east of England (Bedford, Central Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire and Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring).

  • Residents told to stay at home, with exemptions for those who have to travel for work or education
  • Household mixing indoors is not allowed, unless you live with them, or they are part of your existing support bubble
  • All non-essential retail to close, including hairdressers, nail bars, indoor gyms and leisure facilities
  • Social mixing cut to meeting one person in an open public space
  • Communal religious worship is still allowed

The measures will be reviewed on 30 December.

New variant much more infectious

Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, said they alerted the government on Friday that the new variant - first identified in the middle of October from a sample taken in September - was spreading faster than other viruses circulating.

Dr Hopkins told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme that there was evidence that people with the new strain had "higher viral loads" - which meant they were more infectious.

She also said findings had shown the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible based on modelling the rate of increase in the new strain compared to others in circulation.

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