Watch: Hancock announces tougher coronavirus restrictions for swathes of southern England
Just two areas of England have been brought out of the most severe Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions – while swathes of the East and South East have been added.
Bristol and North Somerset will be the only areas to move down to the less restrictive Tier 2, health secretary Matt Hancock announced in the House of Commons on Thursday.
Hancock said it was possible because infection rates have dropped from 432 cases per 100,000 people to 121 “and falling”.
However, numerous areas of the East and South East have been moved from Tier 2 to Tier 3.
That means a total 38 million people in England – 68% of the population – will be living under the most restrictive measures from Saturday, when the new rules come into force.
The new Tier 3 areas include Bedfordshire; Buckinghamshire; Berkshire; Peterborough; the whole of Hertfordshire; Surrey with the exception of Waverley; Hastings and Rother on the Kent border of East Sussex; and Portsmouth, Gosport and Havant in Hampshire.
Explaining the decision, Hancock said case rates in the south of England were up 46% in the last week, with hospital admissions up by more than 33%.
In the East, he said case rates increased 66%, with hospital admissions up by nearly 50%.
Due to the virus spreading rapidly in swathes of the South, London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire had already been moved from Tier 2 to Tier 3 earlier this week.
Meanwhile, just one area of England – Herefordshire – was moved down from Tier 2 to Tier 1 on Thursday. Hancock said case rates there are down to 45 infections per 100,000 people.
Just 2% of England’s population is in Tier 1, in which indoor gatherings of up to six people are allowed. The other areas are the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Hancock suggested people should take “personal responsibility” if they want to move into less restrictive measures and keep the pandemic under control – despite his government allowing household mixing over Christmas.
On Wednesday, a further 25,161 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus were reported in the UK. This was the highest number of daily infections since 14 November, when there were 26,860.
Before Hancock’s announcement on Thursday, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham – whose area is in Tier 3 – had predicted the government would “overcompensate” by not allowing places to move down into Tier 2 because of the five-day easing of restrictions over Christmas.
Experts have warned the relaxation of the rules, allowing three households to gather between 23 and 27 December, will lead to a spike in infections and deaths in the New Year.
Boris Johnson was this week under pressure to tighten – or even abandon – his festive plan. However, the prime minister rejected this, saying at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday that it would be “frankly inhuman” to “ban Christmas”.
However, he also added the three-household and five-day allowance is “not a target to aim for”, saying it would be safer to “minimise the number of people you meet”.
England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty also urged restraint as he told people to remember four things: “Keep it small, keep it short, keep it local and think of the most vulnerable people.”
Watch: What are the restrictions for Christmas this year?