Boris Johnson has warned of a new year national lockdown if England eases up on coronavirus restrictions, as 99 per cent of the country’s population was placed under tough controls in the run-up to Christmas.
Despite hopes that vaccines and mass testing may return the UK to a more normal life by Easter, the prime minister warned that “we are not out of the woods yet” and urged Britons not to let up in their vigilance when the second lockdown ends on Wednesday.
And the chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned against hugging elderly relatives at Christmas.
He told a Downing Street press conference that hugs would risk spreading Covid-19 to the most vulnerable and should be avoided “if you want them to survive to be hugged again”.
Some 42 per cent of England’s population – including residents of Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Leicester and Bristol – will be placed into the toughest tier 3 restrictions on 2 December, forcing the closure of pubs and restaurants and tight controls on social mixing.
London was among the 57 per cent of the country placed in tier 2, alongside Liverpool, where six weeks of mass testing have brought infection rates down by about 70 per cent in a pilot scheme that Mr Johnson wants to roll out to all tier 3 areas.
Only Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly – 1 per cent of England – will be in tier 1 when the lockdown ends on 2 December, allowing all pubs and restaurants in those areas to reopen, with table service only.
The map unveiled by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, marked a sharp escalation in restrictions compared with those before the 5 November lockdown – at which point 42 per cent of the country was in tier 1 – and triggered a backlash from Tory MPs angered by the tightening of the screw.
Mr Johnson promised a review of all allocations on 16 December, promising that “your tier is not your destiny … Every area has the means of escape.”
All tier 3 authorities were told they could apply next week for Liverpool-style testing, with 14,000 troops on standby to assist NHS Test and Trace with roll-out.
But Prof Whitty poured cold water on the prime minister’s optimism, warning that only the harshest tier 3 regime would cut infections, with tier 2 only strong enough to “hold the line” and tier 1 certain to lead to spread of the disease.
“If you're in tier 1, the rates start to go up,” he said. “So you do not want to do that in winter, just before Christmas, going into the worst time for the NHS.”
Prof Whitty said that Christmas will inevitably “increase the risk” of infection.
He urged families who take advantage of the planned five-day relaxation of restrictions over the festive break: “Don’t do stupid things. Don’t do unnecessary things just because the rules say you can. Think sensibly.”
The UK-wide guidelines issued earlier this week do not require social distancing within Christmas bubbles.
But Prof Whitty said: “Would I want someone to see their family? Of course, that’s what Christmas is about.
“But would I encourage someone to hug and kiss their elderly relatives? No, I would not.
“It's not against the law … You can do it within the rules that are there.
“But it does not make sense, because you could be carrying a virus and if you’ve got an elderly relative, that would not be the thing you'd want to do in a period where we're running up to that point where actually we might be able to protect older people.”
Mr Johnson warned that easing off on the new restrictions could lead to a third national lockdown in January.
Speaking alongside Prof Whitty and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, at a Number 10 Downing Street press conference on his first day out of 14 days’ self-isolation, the prime minister said he was “absolutely convinced” that by April, vaccines and testing would have made the Covid situation “much, much better”.
But he warned: “If we ease off now, we risk losing control of this virus all over again, casting aside our hard-won gains and forcing us into a new year national lockdown, with all the damage that would mean.”
“The tough measures in our winter plan are the best way to avoid this outcome.”
Official daily figures recorded a further 498 deaths of people with Covid-19, bringing the UK total to 57,031. The daily total of new lab-confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the UK was 17,555.
The allocation of tier levels sparked anger among MPs, civic leaders and businesses, with many challenging the rationale behind placing whole counties under stringent restrictions when some parts have relatively low rates of infection.
Growing numbers of Tory MPs indicated they may vote against the plan in the Commons on Tuesday unless the government produces a compelling cost-benefit analysis of both the health and economic impacts of the new restrictions. The co-chair of the Covid Recovery Group, Conservative former minister Steve Baker, denounced Mr Johnson’s plan as “appalling … authoritarianism”.
John Penrose, the husband of NHS Test and Trace boss Dido Harding, criticised the decision to place his Weston-super-Mare constituency in tier 3 as “illogical”.
Sir Richard Leese, the Labour leader of Manchester City Council, said it was “deeply disappointing” that the city had been placed in tier 3 and called for better state support for the hospitality and cultural sectors which would be “devastated” by the decision.
“We have seen a very significant reduction in infection levels, bringing Manchester close to the national average, and we have been making an evidence-based case to government that we should be moved into tier 2,” he said.
“We expect to continue making that progress and will keep pressing that case for an easing of restrictions. We hope for better news in two weeks’ time when the tiers are reviewed.”