Millions of people across the UK are being forced to tear up their Christmas plans following fresh restrictions to curb the spread of a new mutant strain of coronavirus.
In England, Boris Johnson effectively cancelled Christmas for almost 18 million people in London, south-eastern and eastern England as the region was put into a new two-week lockdown from Sunday.
The Prime Minister said people should “lift a glass to those who aren’t there”, knowing that celebrating Christmas apart this year meant there would be “a better chance that they’ll be there next year”.
Under the new Tier 4 rules non-essential shops – as well as gyms, cinemas, casinos and hairdressers – have to stay shut and people are limited to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.
Those in Tier 4 were told they should not travel out of the region, while those outside were advised against visiting.
In the rest of England, Christmas easing has been severely curtailed, with households allowed to gather for just one day – Christmas Day itself – rather than the five days previously planned.
Scotland and Wales are also restricting Christmas “bubbles” to a single day, while people in Northern Ireland have been asked to consider forming a bubble for Christmas Day only.
Wales has also mirrored the Tier 4 restrictions in England by bringing forward alert level four measures to Sunday, while Scotland has said its travel ban with the rest of the UK will now remain in place right throughout the festive period.
The new regulations creating a Tier 4 in England came into force at 7am on Sunday and will be laid before Parliament, which is in recess, on Monday.
The statutory instrument was made at 6am on Sunday, and must be approved by both the House of Commons and House of Lords within 28 days, otherwise the change to the law is reversed as per a process known as the “made affirmative procedure”.
At a No 10 news conference on Saturday, Mr Johnson said he was taking the actions with a “heavy heart”, but the scientific evidence – suggesting the new strain was up to 70% more transmissible than the original variant – had left him with no choice.
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
“Without action the evidence suggests that infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives,” he said.
“Yes Christmas this year will be different, very different. We’re sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so that we have a better chance of protecting their lives, so that we can see them at future Christmases.”
The announcements prompted a rush to the London train stations and by 7pm on Saturday, there were no tickets available online from several London stations including Paddington, Kings Cross and Euston.
Footage posted on social media showed large crowds at St Pancras station waiting to board trains to Leeds.
The announcements came as a hammer blow to many businesses – particularly retailers hoping to pick up some pre-Christmas sales at the end of a torrid year in which they had faced repeated orders to close.
There was also fury among some Conservative MPs after weeks of growing backbench unrest over the return of more and more stringent controls.
Mark Harper, the leader of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, demanded the recall of Parliament so MPs could debate and vote on the changes for England.
“Given the three-tier system and the initial Christmas household rules were expressly authorised by the House of Commons, these changes must also be put to a vote in the Commons at the earliest opportunity, even if that means a recall of the House,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, told The Sunday Telegraph: “Given
that the Prime Minister is not going to resign, perhaps it is time for Matt Hancock to consider his position.”
British Medical Association council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul however welcomed the announcement which, he said, would save lives and help health services cope with “incredible demand”.
The dramatic move came after scientists on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) concluded the mutant strain identified by the Public Health England laboratories at Porton Down was spreading more quickly.
The Prime Minister was advised of the group’s conclusions at a meeting with ministers on the Covid O Committee on Friday evening, and the new regulations were signed off by the Cabinet in a conference call on Saturday.
The UK also informed the World Health Organisation of its findings.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said the new variant, known as VUI 202012/01, was thought to have originated in either London or Kent in September.
By November, it was accounting for 28% of new infections in the region and by early December that had risen to 60%.
“This new variant not only moves fast but it is becoming the dominant variant,” he said.
He said however there was no evidence it causes a more severe illness than the original virus, while the “working assumption ” of scientists was that the vaccines that had been developed should be able to deal with it.