Large swathes of southern England will be placed under Tier 3 restrictions from Saturday due to rising coronavirus levels.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock set out the findings of the first full review of England’s tier allocations, with very little good news for areas already under tough restrictions.
Instead he was forced to place more areas under the toughest measures, closing pubs, restaurants and cinemas.
The changes mean a total of 38 million people will be living in Tier 3 from Saturday – 68% of the population of England.
Mr Hancock said areas moving into Tier 3 are: Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Peterborough, the whole of Hertfordshire, Surrey with the exception of Waverley, Hastings and Rother on the Kent border of East Sussex, and Portsmouth, Gosport and Havant in Hampshire.
The little good news came for Bristol and North Somerset, which will move from Tier 3 to Tier 2.
Herefordshire will go down into Tier 1, although the county’s public health director raised concerns about the relaxation of measures there.
Mr Hancock told the Commons that the UK has “come so far” and “mustn’t blow it now” in taking a cautious approach comes amid mounting concern about the prospect of a surge in cases following the easing of restrictions over the Christmas period.
Justifying the tougher measures, Mr Hancock said case rates in the South East of England are up 46% in the last week while hospital admissions are up by more than a third.
In the East of England cases are up two-thirds and hospital admissions up by nearly half in the last week.
The latest Tier 3 areas come after London and parts of Hertfordshire and Essex were placed under the top level of restrictions earlier this week.
Mr Hancock said: “I know that Tier 3 measures are tough. But the best way for everyone to get out of them is to pull together, not just to follow the rules but do everything they possibly can to stop the spread of the virus.”
It was “vital that everyone sticks at it and does the right thing, especially over this Christmas period”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told reporters that he was concerned the tier system was “just not strong enough to control the virus”.
Mr Hancock’s announcement provoked anger in Greater Manchester – which had hoped to be moved out of Tier 3 – and areas newly placed within the toughest restrictions.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers and a Greater Manchester MP, questioned what more the region could do to get out of Tier 3.
“The statement will be greeted with dismay in Greater Manchester where we have had severe restrictions for nine months, where in nine of the 10 boroughs rates are below the national average,” he said.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said he was “not surprised but very disappointed”.
“It feels like if the North has rising cases, the North goes under restrictions; if London and the South East has rising cases, everyone stays under restrictions,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.
Mr Hancock said the Government “looked very closely” at the area but there continues to be “significant pressure” on the NHS in the North West.
Manchester City Council’s Labour leader Sir Richard Leese said: “I cannot say that this announcement is not bitterly disappointing so close to Christmas. For many of our businesses the possibility of trading, even in a limited way, would have been a brief respite in what has been a devastating year.”
Stevenage Tory MP Stephen McPartland said it was “ridiculous that we are being dragged into Tier 3″ and “totally unacceptable”.
Herefordshire’s acting director of public health, Rebecca Howell-Jones, raised concerns about the county’s move to Tier 1, warning of a “yo-yoing” between tiers.
“From a public health perspective, I would have to say no, we are disappointed by this news,” she told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.
“I think the relaxation of the rules now, just ahead of the Christmas mixing and the further relaxation that is inevitably going to result in more infections. It feels like it is too soon.
Gerald Vernon-Jackson, the Liberal Democrat leader of Portsmouth City Council, said the decision to put the Hampshire city into Tier 3 was “bizarre” when other authorities that required care provided by the city’s Queen Alexandra Hospital had not been moved up.
Steve Baker, the deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Conservatives, said he was “disappointed” that his Wycombe constituency was being moved into Tier 3.
“The Government must urgently clarify what the criteria are for moving areas between, and especially down, the tiers,” he added.
Meanwhile, the Government announced that secondary school and college pupils’ return to class in England will be staggered in the first week of January to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.
But education unions expressed concerned over the logistics of setting up the programme and criticised the Government for making a last-minute announcement at the end of term.