New Covid strain ripping through the South is forcing millions into Tier 3 lockdowns

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A NEW strain of coronavirus which spreads even quicker has been identified in large parts of England, Matt Hancock revealed today – as he plunged millions more Brits into Tier 3.

The Health Secretary told MPs that a new “variant” has been discovered in up to 60 places across the UK – and the World Health Organisation has been informed.

London and parts of the South East will go into Tier 3 from Wednesday

London, parts of Essex and parts of Hertfordshire will move into Tier 3 from 12.01am on Wednesday, he told the Commons today.

He added: “We have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in South East England.

“It is growing faster than existing variants, with over 1,000 cases.”

There are over 60 areas affected, which is “growing rapidly” and similar strains have been identified in other countries, he said.

“We’ve seen very sharp exponential rises of the virus across London, Kent parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.

“We must take fast and decisive action.”

The World Health Organsiation and Public Health England are continuing to look into the new killer strain.

But it’s likely to still respond to the vaccine, and doesn’t mean people will become more seriously ill, he stressed.

It comes hours after Boris Johnson led a “Covid O” meeting to agree the measures, which will close pubs and restaurants.

The emergency plans will mean pubs and restaurants will be forced to shut.

The Health Secretary will give a press conference from Downing Street this evening.

This morning, health bosses delivered a grim briefing to London MPs this morning warning that Covid is once again surging through the capital.

Infection rates have rocketed “exponentially” in all boroughs apart from Kensington and Chelsea, and cases are now “off the charts”, politicians were told.

London’s hospital occupancy now stands at 93 per cent, too, with MPs worried about the impact in January, one of the busiest times of the year.

It comes as:

  • London Mayor Sadiq Khan today revealed there has been a 75 per cent rise in Covid cases
  • Schools in Greenwich and Islington are set to close early – but No10 has said they should stay open
  • Health officials have warned the Tiers will need to be toughened as they have failed to work
  • Covid cases are rising in only two areas in the North, as a fresh surge hits the South

Before the surge in infections in the last few days, the earliest London was expected to go into Tier 3 was December 19, a few days after the review on December 16.

But the timetable has been dramatically hauled forward, with scientists and ministers believing more urgent action is needed to stop the sudden spiral in cases.

Last week Mr Hancock announced mobile testing units to be ordered into schools in London and the South East over soaring cases.

Matt Hancock told MPs of the news this afternoon
Covid hospitalisations in England continue to rise – after a drop following the lockdown
Mr Khan warned it was possible Tier 3 could be announced today

‘DEVASTATING’

The decision will be another harsh blow to pubs and restaurants.

One pub landlords, Gary Murphy, who owns Ye Olde Mitre Inn in North London told Sky News he was “devastated” at the decision.

He said: “We’ve done everything we possibly can and here we are again, closed down.

“I would love to see us being part of the solution, rather than the solution.

“I’ve got a load of stock downstairs.. I’m going to have a load leftover unless I can persuade the people of Barnet to have a last drink tonight.

“Lots of beer will be going down the drain.”

Mr Murphy said the coronavirus crisis has been “unbelievably bad” for his pub.

“We have lost half a million in turnover. I’ve had no income since March. We really are struggling.”

TOUGHER TIERS?

And in a bombshell intervention, health bosses have floated plans to toughen up Tier 3 amid fears the restrictions do not do enough to curb rates – but ministers have not signed up to the idea yet.

Public health chiefs told MPs this morning that more needed to be done, and Tier 3 was not having an impact in areas such as Kent.

It’s not yet clear whether ministers are considering it.

Downing Street said this lunchtime the Tiers system had already been set out, but refused to deny it could be changed.

Tier 3 already sees shops, hairdressers and gyms remain open.

LONDON CALLING

Meanwhile, furious Tory MPs are begging Boris Johnson not to go nuclear and chuck the capital into more draconian measures.

They have written to the PM to warn of the devastating hammer blow this would deal to London’s already weakened economy.

One London MP at the briefing with health minister Helen Whately described the picture as “very depressing”.

MPs were also told that the message over Christmas would be “do not mix if you don’t need to”.

But No10 said today they would not be changing any of the rules at Christmas, despite warnings of spikes of cases.

London’s shops were packed with people over the weekend

Boris Johnson led a “Covid O” meeting today to decide on London measures

The health horror stats have spooked ministers who are desperate to stamp down cases before the Christmas lockdown amnesty kicks in, and cases are likely to rocket.

London MPs are also demanding a bailout for the capital if more draconian restrictions are ushered in.

The London Mayor warned Tier 3 would be “catastrophic” for the capital’s businesses, and demanded extra support.

SCHOOL’S OUT?

And Mr Khan has demanded schools be closed yet again to crack down on cases.

The move would force hundreds of thousands of pupils to study online and comes after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s vowed to keep kids in school.

He revealed there has been a 75 per cent surge in coronavirus cases across the capital, but put it down largely to kids between the age of 10 to 19-years-old.

“I don’t see many 10 to 19-year-olds in pubs, bars, restaurants,” Mr Khan said, as he urged the Government to close schools a few days early rather than punishing the hospitality sector.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, he said “urgent consideration must…be given to closing secondary schools, sixth form and FE colleges a few days early and keeping them closed for longer after Christmas”.

“With significant outbreaks among 10 to 19-year-olds, the Government must consider asking schools and colleges to close early and re-open later in January, with extra resource provided to support online learning.”

Councils for the London boroughs of Greenwich and Islington have told schools in their areas to close early and move to online learning because of the surge in cases in kids.

Schools in the area will stay open for kids of key workers and vulnerable pupils.

Downing Street has said schools are expected to stay open until the end of term.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We’ve consistently said that not being in school has a detrimental impact on children’s learning as well as their own personal development and mental health.

“Which is why we expect all schools and colleges to remain open until the end of term on Thursday, as schools have remained open throughout the pandemic.”

He declined to comment on whether any action would be taken against them if they defied orders.

COVER UP

Mr Khan has also demanded all workers who can’t stay home be tested and for people to wear face coverings outside in public spaces too.

MPs were told by health ministers that schools would not be closed – and that shutting them would mean teenagers hanging around in shopping centres and other areas spreading the virus instead.

But another MP said: “Secondary schools should close today and go into remote learning.”

LONDON-WIDE COVID SURGE

The average number of new cases over seven-days has risen in 32 local authority areas.

And there are 17 boroughs where the infection rate has jumped above 200 cases per 100,000.

 

According to the latest figures, the borough of Havering has the highest coronavirus rate in London, with 1,314 new cases recorded in the seven days to December 9 – the equivalent of 506.3 cases per 100,000 people.

This is up from a rate of 321.3 in the seven days to December 2.

In the letter to Mr Johnson, Mr Khan called the surge in cases “deeply concerning”.

Face coverings should also be made mandatory in busy outdoor public spaces given the increase in Christmas shoppers over the coming weeks, he added.

Mr Khan said: “Time is running out to get the virus under control in our city which is why I urge the Government to heed my call and provide us with the extra support we desperately need.”