Millions face lockdown misery for two long months: No let up for London until all have jab

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Tier 4: Matt Hancock on chances of restrictions being lifted

And he suggested the Tier 4 measures imposed on London and most of the South East at the weekend will not be lifted until the Government’s vaccination programme can protect all the most-at-risk people. Speaking yesterday, Mr Hancock said: “It is an enormous challenge until we can get the vaccine rolled out to protect people, and this is what we face over the next couple of months. We have got a long way to go.”

Around 500,000 people have received the first of their two Pfizer/BioNTech jabs in the fortnight since it arrived in Britain.

More than 400 sites are now offering it, and there are hopes the Oxford University vaccine will also be approved by regulators by the end of the year.

Data released yesterday showed the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the last seven days had soared by 51 percent to 190,744.

The daily figures showed 35,928 new cases and 326 deaths.

Christmas shopping

Shoppers rush to do Christmas shopping before Tier 4 is imposed (Image: David Cliff/NurPhoto/PA)

People fleeing London at St Pancras

People fleeing London at St Pancras (Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Meanwhile, a YouGov opinion poll suggested that three-quarters of voters – 74 per cent – support the tightening of restrictions.

The Government said that it was forced to introduce the new rules on Saturday after an emergency four-hour meeting of its scientific advisers late on Friday night.

The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Group (Nervtag) told Ministers afterwards that the new strain had a growth rate that could be 71 percent higher than other variants.

It also “demonstrated exponential growth during a period when national lockdown measures were in place”.

Tier 4 areas

Tier 4 areas (Image: Daily Express)

The minutes of the meeting suggest Tier 4 restrictions may not be enough to hold back the virus, given that the national lockdown did not.

And assessments of the frequency of the variant, called VUI-202012/01, “may be underestimates”.

Also, it will take at least two weeks to show if the Pfizer vaccine protects against the new strain – but there is every reason to think it will.

Mr Hancock said all this new data led to the changes announced by Mr Johnson on Saturday.

He effectively cancelled Christmas celebrations for 18 million people in England, who were put in the new Tier 4.

St Pancras

Police patrol St Pancras (Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA)

And the five-day relaxation of household-distancing rules from December 23-27 was cut to just one day for Tiers 1 to 3.

Wales also went into lockdown yesterday, with no more than two households being able to meet on Christmas Day.

Different rules apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Mr Hancock said: “The new variant is out of control and we need to bring it under control, and this news about the new variant has been an incredibly difficult end to, frankly, an awful year.”

He also said: “I’m really worried about the NHS. There are just over 18,000 people in NHS hospitals with coronavirus. So that is only just below the number that there were at the first peak.”

He went on to say he understood that many families were “cross and frustrated” at the rule changes.

He added: “I had to call my mum last night and say I’m really sorry but we’re not going to see you at Christmas, just like so many other people did. And so I get that side of things.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to say sorry to the public for the way the new rules had been handled.

He added: “This is not just one mistake when he has otherwise got things right. It is the same mistake over and over again.

“At the heart of the problem here is a Prime Minister who simply doesn’t want to be unpopular and therefore won’t take the tough decisions that are necessary – until he is forced into them at the 11th hour. We can’t go on like that.”

But Government ministers insisted the PM was forced to change plans at short notice because of the new evidence presented to him on Friday night.

Top scientists also told of their concern if rules were relaxed.

Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead at the World Health Organisation, said: “All of us need to look at what we do every day in terms of minimising our exposure.

“It’s a thousand little decisions every day about what we do.

“We need to know what our risk is when we go about our day and we need to take those steps to limit the risk.”

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