London and parts of the South East will move into Tier 3 lockdown restrictions following “very sharp, exponential rises” in coronavirus infections, Matt Hancock has said.
The health secretary said London and parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will be moved into the highest level on Wednesday.
In a sign of the seriousness of the current situation, ministers brought the decision forward ahead of the official review date for tiers in two days’ time.
Under Tier 3, restaurants and pubs must become takeaway-only, and all mingling with other households is banned except in some outdoor public spaces such as parks, where the rule of six applies.
Hancock also told the Commons a new variant of coronavirus had been identified in England.
He said: “Over the last few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in the South of England.”
London’s COVID spike raises questions over the effectiveness of the month-long national lockdown imposed in November.
Cases in the capital are higher than when the restrictions were brought in, with schools thought to be a significant driver of the spread.
Watch: London mayor calls on government to close schools early
London mayor Sadiq Khan called for the government to consider asking schools and colleges to close early ahead of Christmas and reopen later in January.
He said all schools and colleges across London should be given “priority testing” from Monday after “significant” coronavirus outbreaks among 10- to 19-year-olds in the capital.
The news comes amid increasingly dire warnings from experts about the risks of easing lockdown rules over Christmas.
On Sunday, the lead researcher behind the Oxford coronavirus vaccine warned that people’s behaviour over the festive season could hinder the rollout of COVID jabs.
Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said travelling and mixing over Christmas will have a “big impact” on how long it takes for life to return to normal.
Watch: The COVID dos and don’ts of Christmas this year