Surging coronavirus infections and fears over a mutant strain have seen Kent plunged from Tier 1 to Tier 4 in less than a month.
The county’s nearly two million residents will now effectively return to the lockdown rules of November.
The news comes as a blow with Christmas just days away and as the region reels from some of the highest infection rates in the country.
From Sunday 20 December, some areas in England will enter Tier 4: Stay At Home.
[Tap to expand the poster] pic.twitter.com/zPKKGrutN2
— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) December 19, 2020
Scientists are also investigating a mutant strain of the virus that has been prevalent in the South East that may be up to 70% more transmissible.
One Conservative Kent MP said the fresh restrictions were “very hard” but that without them the region faced “a truly dangerous and terrible start to 2021”.
Under the new rules, non-essential shops, gyms, cinemas, hairdressers and bowling alleys will be forced to close for two weeks – while people will be restricted to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.
The new Tier 4 restrictions will apply in all Tier 3 areas in the South East – covering Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey (excluding Waverley), Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings.
Tonight as we hear the news about Covid lockdowns, I’m grateful to all @NHSuk for what they’re going through. This is an extraordinary time and they are – still – on the frontline.
— Tom Tugendhat (@TomTugendhat) December 19, 2020
Two Kent districts are among the top five in England for Covid-19 infection rates, data analysis from the PA news agency shows.
Medway in Kent is in third place with a rate of 831.1 cases per 100,000 people, according to figures for the week to December 7.
Swale is in fifth place with a rate of 750.9 after recording 1,127 new cases.
Among those reacting to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Saturday was Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale, whose constituency North Thanet will enter Tier 4.
He said: “It is very hard but if we are to enjoy Christmas and at the same time stay safe it is vital that everyone sticks to the restrictions that have been announced this afternoon.
“The alternative will be a truly dangerous and terrible start to 2021.”
No-one wants to stop people living their lives, especially at Christmas, but we have a duty to keep people safe. The COVID infection rates in Kent are very bad, and getting worse. We need to limit the spread of the virus and bring it back under control. https://t.co/6mThZHKn8O pic.twitter.com/BgfI3zCH1y
— Damian Collins (@DamianCollins) December 19, 2020
Saturday’s announcement of a move to Tier 4 marks a new escalation for Kent as cases continue to rise.
The county began December in Tier 1, the lowest level of restrictions, before being moved to Tier 3 from December 2.
The further shift to Tier 4 will place yet more restrictions on the county’s population of about 1.9 million and see countless Christmas plans dashed.
Tracey Crouch, Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, tweeted: “I feel quite down (personally & professionally) about tougher restrictions announced this afternoon but I also understand why this has happened.
“Our local hospitals have reached capacity, the virus & its new variant is rife in our community. Focus must be on vaccine roll out.”
Tudor Price, deputy chief of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, said the new restrictions for the county are “disappointing”, but “not surprising”.
He told the PA news agency: “It’s the worst of all possible situations from a business point of view but understandable from a public health point of view.
“(I am) extremely empathetic towards those businesses that now have to close.”
He said the Government needed to spell out what support will be available under Tier 4 swiftly and added that businesses can also get advice from the Kent and Medway Business Support Hotline on 03333 602300.