Covid: Millions more braced for tougher rules in England

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Hancock: "We don't take these tiering decisions lightly"

Millions more people in England are to be placed under the toughest tier four coronavirus restrictions as case numbers continue to rise.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock will set out the details of which areas will change in a Commons statement later.

Infection rates in lower-tier areas of England have risen rapidly in the last seven days, government data shows.

Tier four rules include a "stay at home" order, and mean businesses such as hairdressers and gyms must close.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Hancock said it was clear from recent data that the number of infections was rising in other parts of the country - not just in London and the South East "as it was in the last few weeks".

The health secretary said the government didn't "take these tiering decisions lightly", but warned the new variant "has made suppressing the virus much harder".

Asked whether ministers were considering a national lockdown, Mr Hancock said the tier was system was implemented "because not everywhere needs the same level of restrictions".

He also urged people to "stay in this new year" regardless of what tier their local area is under - in a bid to slow the spread of the virus.

It comes as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved for use in the UK.

On Tuesday, 53,135 new Covid cases were recorded in the UK - the highest single day rise since mass testing began - as well as 414 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

The West Midlands and Hartlepool are among the areas that could be affected by the tier changes.

Parts of the East Midlands, such as Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, as well as all areas of the West Midlands metropolitan county are other areas which could move into tier four.

And it is thought a handful of areas in Lancashire - Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Pendle and Ribble Valley - could be upgraded from tier three.

There may also be further curbs for areas already in the highest tier amid concerns that tier four rules are not enough to stop the fast-spreading new virus variant.

About 40% of people in England, including London, parts of the East of England and much of the South East, are currently in tier four.

Under these rules, non-essential shops, beauty salons and hairdressers must close, and people are limited to meeting in a public outdoor place with their household, or one other person.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is due to make a statement in the House of Commons after 15:30 GMT on schools returning in January, with the exact timing depending on earlier business including the Brexit debate.

Asked about the plans earlier, Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Clearly we want to protect education as much as possible. But the new variant does make it much easier for this disease to transmit."

It comes after government advisers suggested keeping secondary schools closed - or staggering their reopening - would help drive down infections next month.

Infectious diseases expert Prof Neil Ferguson has said that while "nobody wants to keep schools shut", it may be the only alternative "to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations" - which are now at record levels in England and Wales.

He said that because the new virus variant, initially discovered in Kent, appeared to be much more transmissible, it was possible closing schools might not be enough to stop the spread.

Another adviser, Prof Andrew Hayward, said a staggered return to classrooms might be appropriate if schools reopened and "we're going to have to have increased, strict restrictions in other areas of society to pay for that".

Labour's shadow education secretary Kate Green said the government should confirm its plan for schools and colleges, with just two working days before the new term begins for many on Monday.

A No 10 spokesman said the government was "still planning for a staggered opening" of secondary schools, but "we obviously keep all measures under constant review".

Preliminary research by Public Health England has found no evidence the new variant is more able to infect children than other variants, BBC health correspondent Nick Triggle says.

In other developments:

  • A major incident has been declared in Essex amid fears the number of Covid-19 cases could overwhelm the county's health services
  • Ambulances have been seen queuing outside hospitals in east London and Birmingham as doctors report wards are "overstretched"
  • NHS bosses have warned of "narrowing" options for dealing with pressures on the health service
  • Some hospitals in London have begun exploring the transfer of critically ill patients to NHS trusts outside the capital as wards reach capacity, the Health Service Journal reported

Figures from NHS England showed there were 21,787 patients in NHS hospitals in England as of 08:00 on Tuesday, compared with 20,426 on Monday and 18,974 at the first wave peak on 12 April.

Five of the seven NHS regions in England are currently reporting a record number of Covid-19 hospital patients: Eastern, London, Midlands, South East and South West.

The other two regions, North East and North West, remain below peak levels that were set in mid-November.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was vital people did not mix indoors with other households, including at Hogmanay, amid level four restrictions across mainland areas.

Police in Wales turned away visitors to the Brecon Beacons, some of whom had travelled from as far away as London.

In Northern Ireland, Health Minister Robin Swann warned of a "significant rise" in Covid cases among younger adults aged 20 to 39.

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