By Alistair Smout and William James
LONDON (Reuters) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday he hoped that England would not need to go into a third lockdown after Christmas and follow Wales and Northern Ireland in imposing the measure to stop the growing spread of COVID-19.
Northern Ireland and Wales have both outlined plans to head back into lockdown after Christmas to control infection rates, raising suggestions that England might follow suit.
"Obviously we're hoping very much that we'll be able to avoid anything like that," Johnson told reporters. "But the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks."
Earlier schools minister Nick Gibb had said nothing was ruled out, but defended the tier system of restrictions as working well.
Swathes of England's population, including London, have either entered or will enter the highest tier of restrictions this week, Tier 3, which requires all hospitality venues such as pubs and restaurants to close except for takeaways.
Data released on Friday showed infections were spiking. The Office for National Statistics Infection Survey said cases had increased after England's latest national lockdown ended on Dec. 2.
Talk of tighter restrictions comes as Britain prepares to relax all measures over Christmas.
Johnson resisted pressure to change the law, keeping a promise to allow three households to meet up over five days next week, but urging people to exercise extreme caution.
John Edmunds, epidemiologist at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said the Christmas relaxation was a risk as prevalence was still high.
"It doesn't look like the tier system is holding the epidemic wave back, unfortunately" he told Sky News. "I think we are going to have to look at these measures and perhaps tighten them up."
(additional reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood)