Scientists warned that millions of people in London and the South East, who had their Christmas celebrations wrecked by a Government U-turn on allowing household bubbles, would likely be first in line for tougher restrictions.
Infection rates remain astonishingly high in parts of Kent, London and Essex, with some areas seeing three per cent of their populations testing positive in the most recent week.
And today experts warned those places could be first in line for ‘Tier 5’. The next level of lockdown rules has not been confirmed but speculation is growing that officials will have to come up with an even stricter programme for the worst-hit areas, which could see schools and universities forced to close and stay-at-home orders put in place.
Another 8million – including the whole of Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Norfolk among other areas – who were allowed to celebrate the big day with loved ones were upgraded to Tier 4, currently the toughest tier, on December 26.
And today millions more living in Greater Manchester, Birmingham, Warwickshire and other parts of England were moved up to the tightest band of measures.
Experts say Tier 4’s impacts won’t be seen in official figures for Kent until December 31 – meaning that longer-term trends won’t be seen for another week or so.
But dither and delay in imposing restrictions to snuff out the mutant strain of the virus could eventually see all of England plunged into a third national lockdown. SAGE advisers say it is now only a matter of time before the looming threat of tighter restrictions becomes a reality.
Others have warned it is unlikely Britain will be free of restrictions until the summer – pouring cold water on Matt Hancock’s claims they could be lifted as early as April – by which time the country’s most vulnerable will have been vaccinated against the virus.
It comes as the UK records a further 55,000 infections in the past 24 hours, 40 per cent higher than the figures last Thursday. A further 964 deaths were also announced, a 65 per cent rise on the same time last week.
Experts warned today London and the South East are at heightened risk of tighter measures because of their high infection rates and pressure on hospitals. Yet in Kent infection rates are now starting to fall (above)
Infection rates in England are highest in London and around the home counties after a new strain of coronavirus was identified that is 56 per cent more infectious – which experts say is driving the surge
Although not officially announced, Government sources warn ‘Tier 5’ would see schools and universities ordered to turn out the lights alongside stay-at-home orders except for foods, essential and exercises.
3.2MILLION PEOPLE IN ENGLAND TO BE PLUNGED INTO TIER 4 DESPITE FALL IN CASES
Some 3.2million people in England are tonight facing being plunged into the harshest restrictions despite Covid-19 infections falling in their areas.
Department of Health data for the week to December 24, the latest available, shows 22 local authorities in the North and Midlands have been singled out for the economically ruinous restrictions even though their outbreaks shrunk.
It suggests ministers could plunge areas into the highest tiers, regardless of whether ramped up local efforts are stemming the spread of the virus.
South Tyneside saw infections plummet by 19.6 per cent to a rate of 454 cases per 100,000 residents, but this did not keep it in Tier Three, which would have allowed non-essential shops and gyms to keep the shutters up.
In Boston, Lincolnshire, cases spiralled downwards by 18.8 per cent to 234 per 100,000, and in Stoke-on-Trent they dipped by 18 per cent to 722 per 100,000.
As many as seven of the authorities saw their infection rate tick downwards by more than 10 per cent, but this did not lead to them being kept in lower tiers.
Below are the 22 local authorities that recorded drops in infections, but are still bound for Tier 4:
There are growing fears ministers could hit the panic button on the extra tier as early as next week amid spiralling infections across much of the country.
Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of East Anglia who has modelled the outbreak since March, warned today the capital and home counties were first in line for the tougher measures.
‘Newham, Lewisham, Islington, Hillingdon, Havering, Haringey, Greenwich, Hackney – if anything (Tier 5) is going to be in London or predominantly in London,’ he told MailOnline.
‘Whether it’s the capital as a whole or particular local authorities within that, I’m not sure how they’ll do it, but I expect it would be difficult to put some authorities in and leave others out.’
Dr Simon Clarke, an expert in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, also sounded a grim note when he said the capital and South East would be first in line for any tougher measures.
‘I really do think its going to be London and parts of the South East,’ he told MailOnline.
‘They’ve been in Tier 4 the longest and it doesn’t appear to be having any effect. We would see their infection numbers coming down.’
Professor Kevin McConway, a statistician at the Open University, also pointed to Northamptonshire as being at risk of heading into ‘Tier 5’ because it is suffering from high case rates that are rising fast.
‘I’d imagine there would be more concern about cases rising very fast in Northampton than in, say, Newcastle,’ he told MailOnline.
‘They are both places that have just moved to Tier 4 but they could well be treated differently from one another if there’s a new Tier 5.’
He added that the capital was at risk because its cases were still rising despite being in Tier 4 for 11 days.
‘My guess would be that there would be more justification for putting some or all of Londomn into any new Tier than, say, some places in the North East that have just been put into Tier 4 or, perhaps, Somerset or Gloucestershire.’
The researchers said other local authorities – which went into Tier 4 later – were more likely to dodge any toughening of the tiered system because their infection rates aren’t as high as the capital and surrounding areas.
Figures from the Department of Health for the seven-days to December 24, just before Christmas day, show the top 20 areas with the highest infection rates are all in the South – and eight are in the capital.
Brentwood, in Essex, has the highest infection rate in the country at 1,419 cases per 100,000 residents, a 238 per cent increase in seven days.
Epping Forest, also in Essex, has the second highest at 1,413 per 100,000 up 215 per cent from the previous week and Thurrock, which is in the same county, recorded 1,339 per 100,000 in a 207 per cent rise.
Cases across the vast majority of England are now surging upwards, after a new strain which is 56 per cent more infectious spread from the South where it was first identified.
Yet there are early signs that Tier 4 is working as eight out of 12 Kent boroughs – which were first in to Tier 3 measures in the South – start to register a fall in coronavirus infections.
The sharpest drop was in former UK hotspot Swale, where they dipped by 21.2 per cent in a week to 663 cases per 100,000 residents. It was followed by Dover, where they dropped by 17 per cent or 543 per 100,000, and Thanet, where they fell by 14.2 per cent to 488.3 per 100,000.
Professor Lawrence Young, a molecular oncologist at Warwick Medical School, today called on the Government to ‘grasp the nettle’, dump the ever-more complicated tier system and impose a third national lockdown.
‘I’ve been talking to friends and relatives in the past week and people are very confused about the rules for the different tiers, the debacle around schools,’ he told MailOnline, ‘and I think that alongside the mounting impact of infections we’re seeing it does make you wonder whether people are still following all the rules’.
‘It may be better to have a much clearer message that it’s a national lockdown rather than a hotchpotch approach of tiers that then every few days gets tweaked slightly.’
He added that rising infections indicated Britons are no longer listening to the rules on face masks, washing their hands and social distancing, because if they were the virus ‘would not be transmitting’.
‘Yesterday I went to the supermarket and saw people not wearing face masks, I always stare at them but it doesn’t make much difference. People are just not taking it seriously and I think that’s related to the mixed messages from the Government.’
This graph was wheeled out in November to explain how areas were allocated their tiers. Based on this, it appears likely that areas with the highest infection rates are most at risk of being moved into ‘Tier 5’
The Government has already unveiled plans to get children swabbed for coronavirus before they return to the classroom, in an attempt to stop the virus re-entering schools.
The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday left parents raging up and down the country when he shifted the start of the spring term back by a week for secondary schools with only several days notice.
Who will the Government sacrifice to get out of lockdown? Return to normal life depends on No10’s ‘risk appetite’
The number of vaccines Britain gives out before lockdown rules can start to be loosened will depend on the ‘risk appetite’ of the Government and how well they work in real life, scientists say.
There are around 31.7million people on the official waiting list for a jab, which includes everyone over the age of 50, people who are younger but seriously ill, and millions of NHS and social care workers.
Currently the UK is giving out 300,000 doses per week, a figure which is expected to speed up when clinics start using the game-changing Oxford University and AstraZeneca jab which was approved yesterday.
MPs and experts are calling for the vaccines to be given out at lightning speed in a desperate bid to stop the spread of the new coronavirus variant, which new evidence suggests may be so infectious that lockdowns can barely contain it.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, today urged ministers to ‘move heaven and earth to roll out vaccination starting with two million jabs a week’.
Even at this ambitious speed – almost six times the rate vaccinations are currently being given out – it would take until April to get one dose to everyone on the priority list.
But there is hope some restrictions could be lifted before the list is completed, with Matt Hancock saying No10 can lift restrictions ‘when enough people who are vulnerable to Covid-19 have been vaccinated then’. However, he has never committed to an actual figure.
He argued that the measure was needed to allow time for testing centres for pupils to be set up, with the military drafted in to help in the massive drive to get students back behind their desks.
Nonetheless he has also announced that primary schools in areas with high coronavirus case rates will also have to shut for an extra period, in a bid to prevent a resurgence of the infection.
Professor Hunter, however, warned today he was ‘not convinced’ that measures to close schools – as touted under the reportedly proposed Tier 5 – would actually drive down infections.
‘It will slow the increase, but I don’t know if it will be good enough to stop it,’ he told MailOnline. ‘Yes, it will have a benefit but by itself without the vaccine it’s unlikely to be sufficient to actually suppress the virus.’
He warned he was concerned children would still meet up if schools closed, perhaps behind their parents backs, making the restrictions ineffective.
‘If they’re still meeting up in each other’s houses or behind their parents backs that will certainly undermine any benefit,’ he said. ‘It’s the number you meet, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, how close and how long you spend with them and so on.’
He added data from the US suggested the closure of schools had a low impact their because youngsters continued to met at malls and in public places making the measure redundant.
Boris Johnson warned of a new ‘reality’ with mutant Covid rampant on Wednesday as he plunged virtually the whole of England into brutal lockdown until the Spring yesterday.
The PM voiced ‘bitter regret’ after it was announced that three quarters of the country will be in Tier 4 from midnight, adding the rest of the South East, Midlands, North East, parts of the North West and parts of the South West to the top bracket.
All remaining areas – barring just 2,000 people on the Isles of Scilly – are being escalated to Tier 3, including Liverpool, previously seen as an example of how to cope with the disease.
Meanwhile, secondary schools have seen their return delayed even further in January, with most pupils now shut out until at least January 18 – two weeks longer than originally planned – while testing systems are put in place.
Hundreds of primaries in the ‘highest infection’ areas will also not fully reopen from January 4, while secondaries will have to wait until the next tier review in two weeks to learn whether they must stay shut indefinitely.
Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are already in the midst of their own clampdowns amid fears over the more infectious ‘mutant’ strain that is running riot.
The seriousness of the situation was underlined yesterday as the UK recorded another 50,023 cases – a jump of a quarter over the same day last week – and 981 deaths, the highest since April.
At a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson and deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam made clear that hopes for a return to normality now hang on massively scaling up the vaccine rollout, after the Oxford/University AstraZeneca received approval from regulators.
However, even if the government manages to crank up vaccinations to two million doses a week, it will still take months to cover enough of the population to ease restrictions safely.