Millions more people will be plunged into England’s toughest Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions from December 26 in a bid to stem the rising number of infections, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Wednesday.

The new measures will apply to Sussex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, some areas of Essex and the borough of Waverley in Surrey.

At least 18 million people in England are now living under the Tier 4 rules, which ban people from leaving their homes without a “reasonable excuse” and mean they cannot meet other people indoors, including over the Christmas and New Year period.

Tier 4 measures were already imposed on swathes of southern and eastern England, including London last week, as scientists discovered a new strain of coronavirus had been spreading throughout the region. 

Speaking at a news conference, Hancock said other areas of the UK will also be escalated into Tier 3, which forces restaurants, cafes and bars to close and bans people from meeting indoors with anyone outside their own household.

However the health secretary also stressed that “Tier 3 is not enough” to control the new variant of the virus discovered almost two weeks ago and known as VUI-202012/01.

Areas that will move into Tier 3 include Bristol, Gloucestershire, Somerset (including the North Somerset area), Swindon, the Isle of Wight, the New Forest and Northamptonshire, Cheshire and Warrington.

Cornwall and Herefordshire will also be moved up to Tier 2, which allows people to drink alcohol in pubs and restaurants if they have purchased a substantial meal, but only with people they live with or have formed a ‘bubble’ with.

The latest tightening of the UK’s restrictions comes as the country reported 39,237 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, the highest daily count of the entire pandemic.

There were also a further 744 fatalities within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test, the highest daily count since April, taking the UK’s total death toll to more than 69,000.

The new strain of the virus, which is apparently more contagious, is thought to be behind the increasing numbers of infections, and the increase of the UK’s R number from 1.1 to 1.3.

The R number increase means that every 10 people who catch the virus pass it on to between 11 and 13 people.

“Against this backdrop of rising infections, rising hospitalisations and rising number of people dying from coronavirus, it is absolutely vital that we act,” Hancock said.

We simply cannot have the kind of Christmas that we all yearn for.

The health secretary also announced that a new variant of the virus called 501.V2, linked to South Africa, has been discovered in the UK, the second mutation to be announced in as many weeks.

The two people who tested positive for this latest strain are both contacts of people who travelled from Britain to South Africa in the last few weeks.

The pair and their contacts are quarantining, while Hancock said the strain will soon be analysed at Porton Down, the UK’s top secret laboratory. 

Incoming flights from South Africa will be suspended.

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