Boris Johnson warned of a new ‘reality’ with mutant Covid rampant tonight as he plunged virtually the whole of England into brutal lockdown until the Spring – with the UK recording 981 deaths in the worst daily toll since April and vaccines the only hope of escape.
The PM voiced ‘bitter regret’ after it was announced that three quarters of the country will be in Tier 4 from midnight, adding the rest of the South East, Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West to the top bracket.
All remaining areas – barring just 2,000 people on the Isles of Scilly – are being escalated to Tier 3, including Liverpool, previously seen as an example of how to cope with the disease.
Meanwhile, secondary schools have seen their return delayed even further in January, with most pupils now shut out until at least January 18 – two weeks longer than originally planned – while testing systems are put in place.
Hundreds of primaries in the ‘highest infection’ areas will also not fully reopen from January 4, while secondaries will have to wait until the next tier review in two weeks to learn whether they must stay shut indefinitely.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are already in the midst of their own clampdowns amid fears over the more infectious ‘mutant’ strain that is running riot.
The seriousness of the situation was underlined tonight as the UK recorded another 50,023 cases – a jump of a quarter over the same day last week – and 981 deaths, the highest since April.
At a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson and deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam made clear that hopes for a return to normality now hang on massively scaling up the vaccine rollout, after the Oxford/University AstraZeneca received approval from regulators.
However, even if the government manages to crank up vaccinations to two million doses a week, it will still take months to cover enough of the population to ease restrictions safely.
Matt Hancock has admitted that just 530,000 jabs will be available on Monday when they start being administered.
In another miserable signal, Mr Johnson warned that the public ‘should not, in any way think that this is over’ due to the positive news on vaccines as ‘the virus is really surging’.
He said he ‘bitterly regretted’ the harsher restrictions but the ‘reality’ was that the virus was spiralling out of control.
‘We have to face the fact that we’ve got two big things happening at once in our fight against Covid – one’s working for us and one’s working against us,’ he said.
‘On the plus side we have got two valid vaccines, and we’re racing to get them out – and on the bad side there is a new strain of the virus which is spreading much faster and surging across the country.’
Referring to the new tier measures, Mr Johnson said: ‘At this critical moment, with the prospect of freedom within reach, we’ve got to redouble our efforts to contain the virus.
‘No-one regrets these measures more bitterly than I do, but we must take firm action now.’
Mr Johnson said: ‘We must face the reality, the sheer pace of the spread of this new variant, requires us now to take even tougher action in some areas, and that does affect schools.’
Prof Van Tam said: ‘Unfortunately it is a pretty grim and depressing picture at the moment.’
He added that the NHS had yet to see the impact of mixing during the festive period.
‘The situation in the UK is precarious in many parts already, the South East and London,’ he said.
‘It is almost certainly true that the NHS has not yet seen the impact of the infections that will have occurred during mixing on Christmas Day and that is also unfortunately rather sobering.’
Prof Van Tam added that members of the public had ‘just got to play your part from bringing us back from this very dangerous situation’.
Some three quarters of England — more than 44million people — will be under Tier 4 curbs following the latest review of the system, which was announced in the Commons this afternoon.
Another 14million will be in Tier 3, leaving just the Isles of Scilly in Tier 1.
Speculation is also growing about a ‘Tier 5’ crackdown, that could include even harsher measures such as a curfew.
Some 24million people, including London, much of the South and the East are already under the strictest stay-at-home orders.
Pressure has mounted on the Government to act as hospitals across England warned of increasing strains on services due to Covid-19 patient numbers, which have reached their highest levels during the pandemic.