Boris cancels Xmas for a THIRD of England amid ‘mutant’ Covid fears

Where will be in the new Tier 4 from midnight? 

Kent

Buckinghamshire

Berkshire

Surrey (excluding Waverley)

The boroughs of Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings

All 32 London boroughs and the city of London.

Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough

Hertfordshire

Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring).

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Boris Johnson dramatically cancelled Christmas for millions of people today as he hit the panic button on a rampant new mutant strain of coronavirus. 

At an emergency press conference, the PM announced that a third of England, including London and swathes of the home counties, will be shifted up to a brutal new ‘Tier 4’ from midnight.

The draconian bracket means non-essential shops being forced to shut, and travel restrictions including a ‘stay at home’ order for Christmas Day itself – even though Mr Johnson insisted just days ago that it would be ‘inhuman’ to axe five-day festive ‘bubbles’. 

The rest of England will not escape unscathed, with up to three households now only allowed to mix on Christmas Day rather than between December 23 and 27.  

The extraordinary U-turn caused fury among families that have already made plans, booked travel and bought food for reunions. 

But a clearly uncomfortable Mr Johnson told the nation tonight that he had ‘no alternative’ but to act after more evidence surfaced about the devastating spread of the new strain. 

Although it does not appear to be any more deadly, it is believed to be much more contagious, accounting for an incredible 60 per cent of new cases in London over the past week.

Mr Johnson said it could increase the crucial R rate by 0.4 and be 70 per cent more transmissible than previous versions.

‘We must act now,’ he said, appealing for the public to ‘stay local’. ‘We cannot continue with Christmas as planned….

‘I know how much importance people invest in this time of year and how important it is for grandparents to see their grandchildren and families to be together…

‘But I have said through this pandemic that we must and will be guided by the science.’ 

He added: ‘There is no alternative open to me.’

Chief science officer Patrick Vallance said there was no sign so far that the mutation would be able to nullify vaccines – reassuring news for around 350,000 people Mr Johnson revealed have now received their first dose. 

‘This virus spreads more easily and therefore more measures are needed to keep it under control.’ 

Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said that danger was that people moving around the country would ‘seed’ the variant. ‘This is a bad moment,’ he said. 

What are the new Tier 4 rules? 

The Tier 4 rules will be essentially the same as the blanket lockdown that England was under in November. 

Non-essential retail must close, as well as leisure facilities, and personal care such as hairdressers. 

However, places of worship can stay open. 

People in other Tiers will be advised not to go into the highest bracket areas, while residents of Tier 4 must not stay overnight in lower infection spots. 

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The new Tier 4 will be imposed on all existing Tier 3 areas in the South East, covering Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey (excluding Waverley), Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings.

It will also apply in London, Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire, and Essex – excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring.

The rules will be essentially the same as the blanket lockdown that England was under in November. Non-essential retail must close, as well as leisure facilities, and personal care such as hairdressers. 

However, places of worship can stay open. 

People in other Tiers will be advised not to go into the highest bracket areas, while residents of Tier 4 must not stay overnight in lower infection spots. 

They will apply for at least two weeks, with the situation due to be considered at the next review point on December 30. Schools will not be affected immediately as they have broken up for Christmas – but it is not clear what will happen if the Tier 4 restrictions need to be maintained into January. 

No10 has indicated that the measures will come into effect without a vote in Parliament because of the ‘incredibly fast moving’ events, and there are ‘no plans’ to recall MPs – something that will infuriate many Tories who are sceptical about the effectiveness of lockdowns.  

Nicola Sturgeon will hold a press conference later to say whether Scotland is following suit.

The Cabinet had crisis talks this afternoon on how to contain the mutant strain, which is so far thought to have been confined largely to the South East. The PM also spoke to the cabinet on a phone call shortly after 1pm, while Michael Gove has held talks with the devolved administrations.

Speculation had already been mounting that England will have to follow Wales and Northern Ireland in announcing a draconian crackdown for after Christmas. 

The Welsh government broke ranks with the rest of the UK by scaling back Christmas bubbles, in effect from December 23 to 27, from three to two households. It is thought bubbles will still be permitted in Tiers 1-3 in England.   

Boris Johnson is taking a Covid press conference today as he creates a new Tier 4 to tackle a new ‘highly contagious’ coronavirus variant  

Commenting on Professor Whitty's statement, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote on Twitter: 'Following a four nations COVID call earlier, I’ll chair a cabinet meeting this afternoon to discuss emerging evidence on new variant'

Commenting on Professor Whitty's statement, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote on Twitter: 'Following a four nations COVID call earlier, I’ll chair a cabinet meeting this afternoon to discuss emerging evidence on new variant'

Commenting on Professor Whitty’s statement, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote on Twitter: ‘Following a four nations COVID call earlier, I’ll chair a cabinet meeting this afternoon to discuss emerging evidence on new variant’

News of the latest crackdown came as countless Britons flocked to the country's high streets (Oxford Street, pictured) and supermarkets today as they stocked up on Christmas essentials

News of the latest crackdown came as countless Britons flocked to the country's high streets (Oxford Street, pictured) and supermarkets today as they stocked up on Christmas essentials

News of the latest crackdown came as countless Britons flocked to the country’s high streets (Oxford Street, pictured) and supermarkets today as they stocked up on Christmas essentials

Prof Whitty this afternoon confirmed that the new variant is more contagious than previous strains.

He said: ‘As announced on Monday, the UK has identified a new variant of Covid-19 through Public Health England’s genomic surveillance.

‘As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.

‘We have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding.

‘There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is underway to confirm this.

‘Given this latest development it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission.’  

Prof Whitty’s warning follows experiments from Wiltshire’s Porton Down laboratory which found that the new variant is 50 per cent more contagious than any strain detected before. 

Commenting on Professor Whitty’s statement, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote on Twitter: ‘Following a four nations COVID call earlier, I’ll chair a cabinet meeting this afternoon to discuss emerging evidence on new variant. 

‘Cases currently at lower level in Scotland than [the rest of the] UK – but preventative action may be necessary to stop faster spreading strain taking hold.’

News of the new variant came as countless Britons flocked to the country’s high streets and supermarkets today as they stocked up on Christmas essentials.

Experts predict the UK’s tills will ring with a staggering £2.5million-a-minute spent before December 22 as shoppers stack up on last-minute gifts.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been pushing for tighter restrictions all week, but senior government sources insist there are no current plans for a third national lockdown or a fourth tier – though proposals are understood to have been drawn up.  

It is understood the PM was last night provided with ‘alarming’ new evidence on the harmfulness of the mutant strain, but one expert said today it could be weeks before it is known just how damaging it could be.

Professor Sir Mark Walport – a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – said last night there was a real possibility that it could have a ‘transmission advantage’.

‘What happens with viruses is they do naturally mutate all the time and the ones that are likely to do well are the ones that increase transmission,’ he told BBC2’s Newsnight.

‘We know that this is a new variant, it has been seen in other countries but it seems to be quite widespread which suggests that it has got a transmission advantage.

‘Scientists are working extremely hard to work out what is going on. But it does definitely seem possible that this transmits more easily.

‘It will make the social-distancing even more critical.’ 

It comes after data used to justify putting 38million people into Tier 3 were published yesterday, with the UK’s R number rising above one again.  

A series of charts were released by the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), the secretive Whitehall organisation tasked with allocating the whack-a-mole-style lockdowns, after swathes of the South East were plunged into the strictest bracket as part of the first shake-up of the system since the national shutdown ended.

They highlight the North-South divide that has emerged since the country came out of lockdown on December 2, with London and the home counties now bearing the brunt of the winter wave and the epidemic fizzling out in Tier 3 northern areas.

A sea of green – representing shrinking outbreaks – has emerged in the former hotspot regions of the North East and Yorkshire since the national intervention was lifted, with infections now concentrated in and around London and its commuter belt.  

London and the South East are set to be plunged into Tier 4 as a new ‘highly contagious’ coronavirus variant rips through the regions. Pictured: Oxford Street today

Unions tell members not to work over Christmas on ‘undeliverable’ plans to mass test secondary school pupils 

Education unions have told members not work over the holidays on plans to mass test secondary pupils, branding the move ‘inoperable’ and undeliverable’.

The four main teaching unions and the National Governance Association urged staff in a statement to put off preparations until term starts again in the new year.

It added that they should also refuse to work on the scheme while on their days off over Christmas.

‘It is our view that due to the chaotic and rushed nature of this announcement, the lack of proper guidance and an absence of appropriate support, the government’s plan in its current form will be inoperable for most schools and colleges,’ the statement said.

‘Schools and colleges simply do not have the staffing capacity to carry this out themselves. As such, most will not be in a position to carry this out in a safe and effective manner.’

The Royal Statistical Society added that it had ‘major concerns’ over the safety of the government’s plan because the tests were ‘imperfect and must be used with great care’.

As a result, it called on ministers to ‘review them with urgency’.

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From today, 70 per cent of England will be living under the toughest restrictions, despite significant disparities in case rates between rural and urban areas within counties, and there is now the looming threat of a third crude lockdown in the new year.

It comes as the Department of Health recorded 28,507 new cases of the virus in the last 24 hours, up a third from the 21,672 last Friday, and 489 deaths, a rise of 14 per cent from a week ago.

Meanwhile, SAGE now estimates the Covid R rate – the average number of others infected by each person with the disease – is between 1.1 and 1.2 in the UK. It is the first time the reproductive number has definitely been above the crucial mark since the first week of the national lockdown last month.

In England the rate stands even higher at between 1.1 and 1.3, while experts warned it might be as high as 1.4 in the East, and 1.3 in both London and the South East. Last week, Britain’s R number – which doesn’t represent today’s outbreak – was between 0.9 and 1.

Grilled by reporters on a visit to Bolton today, Mr Johnson refused to rule out another blanket lockdown in England – similar to those already announced for Wales and Northern Ireland – even though 38million people are already facing the toughest Tier 3 curbs. 

Any escalation could potentially mean the order to stay at home being reinstated, and non-essential shops forced to shut.  Asked about the prospect of a new lockdown on a visit to Bolton, Mr Johnson said: ‘We’re hoping very much that we will be able to avoid anything like that. ‘But the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks.’ 

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has said the Government faces a ‘very difficult, finely-balanced judgment’ on whether to strengthen the coronavirus rules.

Mr Hunt, who now chairs the Commons Health and Social Care Committee, said that if ministers did not want to change the law they should consider strengthening the guidance on social-distancing.

‘It is a very difficult, finely-balanced judgment. The biggest worry is what happens indoor in family gatherings and that’s where the risks do increase,’ he told the BBC Radio 4 programme.

‘They have to respond to what is happening on the ground. I think they can be clearer about what is and isn’t advisable because it would be an enormous tragedy if we had a spike in deaths at the end of January/February because we took our foot off the pedal this close to having a vaccine.’

Mr Hunt said it was on a ‘knife-edge’ whether a third national lockdown would be needed after Christmas.

‘Looking at the numbers it is difficult to judge at the moment because in the North East and the North West although infection levels are going up they are still much lower than they have been, and the second strain of the virus doesn’t seem to have spread as much in the North as it has in the South. I would say at the moment it is on a knife-edge.’

Frustration as regulator blocks plans to post millions of testing kits to homes

Plans to post millions of testing kits to homes every week in order to avoid a third national lockdown have been halted by the regulator.

The Prime Minister refused to rule out more draconian restrictions across the country yesterday as the coronavirus continues into Christmas.

Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have long been banging the drum for fast ‘lateral flow’ testing kits, which they say will help bring down infection rate in areas worst hit by the virus.

However, the roll-out, which ministers hoped would be done through the post, has been rebuffed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

The regulator has concerns over the accuracy of the tests when carried out by people themselves, without a healthcare worker present.

The setback has sparked frustration at the top of government, according to the Times. 

Some figures are blaming Mr Hancock for not getting a hold on the issue sooner, who is said to have promised Mr Johnson it will be resolved swiftly, amid threats by the PM to call the regulator directly. 

It comes as the Department of Health and Social Care disputed claims that hundreds of millions of tests were going unused.

Bosses insist that warehouses have only been stocking ‘tens of million’ of the lateral flow kits at any one time. 

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The increasingly dire situation raised further questions about the decision to press ahead with Christmas ‘bubbles’, which mean three households can mix freely between December 23 and 27. Mr Johnson urged people to do the minimum possible of socialising.

However, Labour leader Keir Starmer yesterday demanded that the premier takes immediate action to avert disaster by cutting the limit to two households. ‘What are you doing now to prevent a third lockdown?’ he said. 

NHS chiefs have warned that hospitals are already creaking under the strain, with fears of a ‘tsunami’ of patients in January. But MailOnline’s analysis of NHS data today revealed that hospitals are still quieter than they were this time last year, and intensive care units have more room than they did last December. 

Sir Mark said the country was in a ‘serious situation’ as it headed towards the new year.

‘The infection numbers are very high indeed at the moment. It is rising quite rapidly in London, in the South East in the East of England,’ he said.

‘Even in the parts of the country where the infection is coming under control the cases remain stubbornly high so the NHS is under great pressure.

‘We are going into January in quite a serious situation where we do need quite strong measures to socially distance and if the virus is changing then that makes it even more imperative.’

His comments come after a Government source told the Mail: ‘There is growing concern about the new strain, and how quickly it transmits.

‘Ministers are considering what action could be taken as a result. Everyone is very worried – if it transmits more quickly and is just as harmful then there is a concern.’

But they added: ‘There is no evidence as yet that it is more harmful.’

A Whitehall source insider told The Sun: ‘This is a fluid situation but it’s not looking good and we have to act fast.’ 

UK experts have so far found more than 1,000 people carrying the new variant, called VUI – 202012/01, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons on Monday. 

There have been reports of the strain in at least 60 local authority areas and it is believed to be similar to other strains in Europe, he claimed. 

The fast-spreading strain is believed to have originated in Kent before spreading to London and the Home Counties. 

Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biological Laboratory told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it could be weeks before its full impact is known.

He said: ‘Viruses mutate all the time and the UK is very good at keeping a tight look.

‘When there’s growth there will always be strains that are growing and some that are shrinking, but what’s concerning scientists this time around is there’s been one quite different strain, it has quite a few more mutations and it has been growing strongly in the south east of England.

‘It really deserves investigation and most scientists on transmissibility of this new strain think it is going faster, it really is a property of the virus.

‘But I must stress how complicated it is to work out in a situation where things might be growing for other reasons to really put your finger on whether it’s actually the virus that’s doing it but the evidence is pointing in that direction.

‘In many different other situations, viruses tend to transmit faster but cause less disease. We just don’t know yet [if it’s harming people more].

‘I know a lot of people are looking very hard at this and in the UK we keep track of the virus so well, but I’m afraid I don’t think anybody knows yet. It will be in a matter of weeks when one starts to get a good sense of that.

‘It’s too early to say [if the new strain will be affected by the Oxford vaccine]. It’s worth stressing that many different mutations including in the spike protein arise all the way through this virus’ evolution.

‘When the vaccines have been trialed, in effect they’ve been trialed against all the circulating variants of this. But with this new variant growing, one does need to do specific tests on this case and I’m sure they’re doing that.’

Boris Johnson could announce another tightening of Covid-19 restrictions as soon as today - after calling a meeting of senior ministers last night to discuss how to contain the mutant strain

Boris Johnson could announce another tightening of Covid-19 restrictions as soon as today - after calling a meeting of senior ministers last night to discuss how to contain the mutant strain

Boris Johnson could announce another tightening of Covid-19 restrictions as soon as today – after calling a meeting of senior ministers last night to discuss how to contain the mutant strain

The strain has so-far been confined to London and the South East, with scientists warning the new variant is 50 per cent more contagious than any detected before. Pictured: Oxford Street on Friday

The strain has so-far been confined to London and the South East, with scientists warning the new variant is 50 per cent more contagious than any detected before. Pictured: Oxford Street on Friday

The strain has so-far been confined to London and the South East, with scientists warning the new variant is 50 per cent more contagious than any detected before. Pictured: Oxford Street on Friday

It is understood the Prime Minister was last night provided with new evidence on the harmfulness of the mutant strain. Pictured: London on Friday

It is understood the Prime Minister was last night provided with new evidence on the harmfulness of the mutant strain. Pictured: London on Friday

It is understood the Prime Minister was last night provided with new evidence on the harmfulness of the mutant strain. Pictured: London on Friday

Oxford vaccine ‘WILL be approved before New Year’ 

Oxford University’s coronavirus vaccine is expected to be approved within days of Christmas, raising hopes that millions of people a week could soon be being inoculated.

Senior Whitehall sources are said to believe that the Medicines and Healthcare product Regulatory Agency will authorise the vaccine on December 28 or 29. They are waiting for the final data from the Oxford scientists, which will be provided on Monday.

The latest positive sign comes after Professor Sarah Gilbert, the lead researcher behind the new vaccine, said on Friday that she hoped the jab ‘isn’t too far off’ from being approved.

And Professor Martin Marshall, the chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said on Saturday morning that the Oxford jab will allow the vaccination process to happen at a ‘much faster pace’.  

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It is understood that families in these areas will be advised to stay at home over Christmas regardless of whether these travel restrictions are imposed.

It comes as South Western Railway has announced it will not run trains on its main cross-country route into the capital at the height of the festive period amid staff shortage fears.

The rail firm said it would only run services between the Tier 2 areas of Exeter and Basingstoke, but not to London, which is under the harshest of restrictions, up to and including December 24.

As a result, passengers will have to take other services between Basingstoke and the capital, which are likely to be overcrowded, further adding to concerns over the spread of the virus. 

It is the second firm to make such an announcement after South Western said it was scaling back services up to Christmas as a result of Covid-enforced staff absences. 

Many fear the five-day Christmas reprieve will see intense pressure placed on the nation’s rail network between December 23 and 27.  

Travellers can only make journeys outside that period when up to three households can mix in ‘exceptional circumstances’.  

Boris Johnson said on Friday it is ‘vital’ that people begin to minimise contact with those from outside their bubbles in order to ‘avoid passing the virus on to loved ones this Christmas.’

In a message on Twitter, he added: ‘If you are forming a Christmas Bubble, it’s vital that from today, you minimise contact with people from outside your household.

‘Everyone must take personal responsibility to avoid passing the virus on to loved ones this Christmas.’ 

He added that the three household limit was ‘very much a maximum’ and not a ‘target you should aim for.’ 

Meanwhile, an expert has warned that Christmas dinner presents the ‘perfect conditions’ for coronavirus to spread.

Professor Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist from the University of St Andrews, told Times Radio: ‘Christmas is a gift to the virus. If you want the perfect conditions for the spread of virus it would be to be indoors, somewhere that wasn’t well ventilated, somewhere which was crowded, somewhere where there’s alcohol so that we forget our inhibitions and that describes perfectly the Christmas dinner.’

Prof Reicher, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), which advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), added: ‘Of course we don’t want to give gifts to this virus, we want to look after ourselves and the best way of doing that, I think, is sadly to postpone if we can.

‘I recognise that for some families it does make sense to meet up, I mean, if you’ve got an elderly relative who might not see another Christmas or somebody who’s suffering greatly there will be exceptions.

‘But if we turn the exception into the rule and if many people meet, then we really are heading towards a disaster.’

He argued that people meeting over the five days of relaxed measures over Christmas was ‘too long’ and that the mixing of households from different areas across the country could ‘relaunch the pandemic’.

It comes as the Department of Health recorded 28,507 new cases of the virus in the last 24 hours on Friday, up a third from the 21,672 last week, and 489 deaths, a rise of 14 per cent from a week ago. 

Swathes of the Home Counties will join London in the Tier 3 today while Manchester and the North East were told they could not move down a grade despite recording fewer cases

Swathes of the Home Counties will join London in the Tier 3 today while Manchester and the North East were told they could not move down a grade despite recording fewer cases

Swathes of the Home Counties will join London in the Tier 3 today while Manchester and the North East were told they could not move down a grade despite recording fewer cases

Rail firm won’t run trains into London amid staff shortage fears 

South Western Railway has announced it will not run trains on its main cross-country route into the capital at the height of the festive period amid staff shortage fears.

The rail firm said it would only run services between the Tier 2 areas of Exeter and Basingstoke, but not to London, which is under the harshest of restrictions, up to and including December 24.

As a result, passengers will have to take other services between Basingstoke and the capital, which are likely to be overcrowded, further adding to concerns over the spread of the virus. 

It is the second firm to make such an announcement after South Western said it was scaling back services up to Christmas as a result of Covid-enforced staff absences. 

Many fear the five-day Christmas reprieve will see intense pressure placed on the nation’s rail network between December 23 and 27.  

Travellers can only make journeys outside that period when up to three households can mix in ‘exceptional circumstances’.

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Meanwhile, SAGE now estimates the Covid R rate – the average number of others infected by each person with the disease – is between 1.1 and 1.2 in the UK. 

It is the first time the reproductive number has definitely been above the crucial mark since the first week of the national lockdown last month.

In England, the rate stands even higher at between 1.1 and 1.3, while experts warned it might be as high as 1.4 in the East, and 1.3 in both London and the South East. 

Last week, Britain’s R number – which doesn’t represent Friday’s outbreak – was between 0.9 and 1. 

Professor Chris Whitty told a Downing Street press conference on Monday it was possible the strain of Covid-19 ripping through southern England is more infectious than regular coronavirus.

He said: ‘The main reason we are raising this to people’s attention is the question about whether this is spreading more quickly. It may be ’cause and effect’, or it may not.’

But the chief medical officer said there was ‘no evidence’ it was more dangerous, or that it could slip past Covid-19 vaccines or tests.

He added: ‘There isn’t huge selection pressure on this virus and therefore it would be surprising – not impossible, but pretty surprising – if this virus would actually have evolved to get around the vaccine.’ 

No information has been publicly announced about the strain and it does not appear to exist in scientific studies, nor to be linked to any of the other mutations that have been found in Europe.

Other versions of coronavirus have been found throughout the year and experts say it is totally normal for the virus to change as it spreads, and is not cause for alarm. 

Variants called D614G and 20A.EU1 have both been found to be widespread and faster to spread than original versions that came out of East Asia, but not more deadly. 

Meanwhile, it was claimed last night that a draconian Tier Four Covid regime could see shops forced to shut and commuters ordered to work from home. 

The plans are being drawn up as a way of avoiding a third national lockdown – but would contain curbs as tough as those seen in previous shutdowns.

Officials are alarmed by the deadly surge in virus cases since the second lockdown ended over a fortnight ago. Scientific advisers floated the idea of a fourth tier last month only for it to be rejected by ministers.

However a Government source last night told the Mail the proposal was back on the table. ‘The Department of Health is pulling out the folder marked Tier Four,’ the insider said. 

‘We are not there yet but we are clearly in a worrying situation. It probably starts with closing non-essential retail and strengthening the work from home message.

‘But there are lots of things you could add to that – it’s still early days.’  

Boris Johnson (pictured in Bolton, Greater Manchester) was asked whether England would have to follow the lead of Wales and Northern Ireland, which have announced plans for lockdowns later this month

Boris Johnson (pictured in Bolton, Greater Manchester) was asked whether England would have to follow the lead of Wales and Northern Ireland, which have announced plans for lockdowns later this month

Boris Johnson (pictured in Bolton, Greater Manchester) was asked whether England would have to follow the lead of Wales and Northern Ireland, which have announced plans for lockdowns later this month

Former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has warned a third lockdown would ‘never get past the party’

Former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has warned a third lockdown would ‘never get past the party’

Former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has warned a third lockdown would ‘never get past the party’

Expert warns Christmas dinner presents ‘perfect conditions’ for virus to spread 

Christmas dinner presents the ‘perfect conditions’ for coronavirus to spread, an expert has warned.

Professor Stephen Reicher, a social psychologist from the University of St Andrews, told Times Radio: ‘Christmas is a gift to the virus. If you want the perfect conditions for the spread of virus it would be to be indoors, somewhere that wasn’t well ventilated, somewhere which was crowded, somewhere where there’s alcohol so that we forget our inhibitions and that describes perfectly the Christmas dinner.’

Prof Reicher, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), which advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), added: ‘Of course we don’t want to give gifts to this virus, we want to look after ourselves and the best way of doing that, I think, is sadly to postpone if we can.

‘I recognise that for some families it does make sense to meet up, I mean, if you’ve got an elderly relative who might not see another Christmas or somebody who’s suffering greatly there will be exceptions.

‘But if we turn the exception into the rule and if many people meet, then we really are heading towards a disaster.’

He argued that people meeting over the five days of relaxed measures over Christmas was ‘too long’ and that the mixing of households from different areas across the country could ‘relaunch the pandemic’.

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Other sectors likely to be considered for closure in Tier Four include gyms, swimming pools and hairdressers. 

During a visit to Bolton yesterday, the Prime Minister was asked whether England would have to follow the lead of Wales and Northern Ireland, which have announced plans for lockdowns later this month. 

He replied: ‘We’re hoping very much that we will be able to avoid anything like that. But the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks.’

Schools minister Nick Gibb earlier insisted England’s tier system, which will see swathes of southern and eastern England move to Tier Three today, was ‘very effective’.

But he added ‘we rule nothing out’ when asked about the possibility of a national lockdown after Christmas. 

Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford, who has ordered a third shutdown from December 28, yesterday suggested England was almost certain to follow. ‘They too will find themselves with numbers escalating and more action needing to be taken,’ he said.

Katherine Henderson, of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, urged ministers to do ‘whatever it takes to get the situation firmly under control so that we can vaccinate people and then move forward’.

Any attempt to impose a third lockdown will spark a major Tory backlash.

Thirty-four Conservative MPs voted against the second lockdown, while 54 voted against the tiers plan.

Former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has warned a third lockdown would ‘never get past the party’. Former Cabinet minister Jake Berry said ministers were ‘governing via fear’ and needed to ‘inject hope again’.

He told the BBC’s Nick Robinson podcast his own Lancashire constituency had been in virtual lockdown since March with only ‘a tiny bit of time off for good behaviour’.

Mr Berry, chairman of the Northern Research Group of Tory MPs, said Mr Johnson had to ‘show us a route out of lockdown’ rather than imposing more restrictions.

Imperial College epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, whose modelling underpins Government decisions, yesterday said the last lockdown failed to halt the rise in cases.

He told Radio 4’s World at One: ‘In the East of England, case numbers were rising during the last lockdown, so there may be the need for additional controls even beyond those in place then.’

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Sage scientific advisory group, said: ‘It doesn’t look like the tier system is holding the epidemic wave back, unfortunately. I think we are going to have to look at these measures and perhaps tighten them up.’

Office staff have already been advised to work from home where possible.

But ministers are considering strengthening this advice in the new year, with commuters advised only to travel to work where essential. Mr Johnson yesterday repeated his plea for families to limit Christmas gatherings.

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