England has been put on notice for a New Year lockdown after the government’s chief scientific adviser demanded a massive extension of Tier 4 restrictions.
With the new variant now surging across the UK, an announcement that large areas of England will join London and parts of southeast England in Tier 4 is expected on Wednesday, 30 December, when the next review of the tier system is due.
The clampdown is expected to come into force in the New Year.
The rapid spread of the virus means the COVID-19 crisis facing Boris Johnson is dramatically escalating, with the chaos at Channel ports caused by the French travel ban expected to last at least until Christmas Eve.
And in another blow to the travelling public, the Stormont executive in Belfast is advising against non-essential travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The executive is also urging anyone arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK to self-isolate for 10 days.
The looming Tier 4 extension in England follows a warning from England’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance on Monday during a Downing Street news conference alongside the prime minister.
Although he said a decision on Tier 4 areas was for politicians, Sir Patrick said cases had spread “everywhere” and warned the country to brace itself for further restrictions.
“The evidence on this virus is that it spreads easily,” he said. “It’s more transmissible, we absolutely need to make sure we have the right level of restrictions in place.
“I think it is likely that this will grow in numbers of the variant across the country and I think it’s likely, therefore, that measures will need to be increased in some places, in due course, not reduced.”
And on Tier 4 measures, he urged the public to take the new COVID variant “incredibly seriously” and said it required “more action in order to keep it down and that’s why Tier 4 is important”.
In another highly significant development at the Downing Street news conference, Mr Johnson signalled that another government U-turn may be on the way on schools reopening in January.
After repeatedly saying during the pandemic that keeping schools open was a “national priority”, the prime minister said the return of pupils to classrooms in the New Year would be kept under review.
“The most useful thing I can tell you at this stage is obviously we want, if we possibly can, to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January in the way that we have set out,” he said.
“But obviously… the commonsensical thing to do is to follow the path of the epidemic and as we showed last Saturday to keep things under constant review.
“But it is very, very important to get kids and keep kids in education if you possibly can.”
Earlier, government scientific advisers claimed that unless the government imposed another national lockdown within days thousands of lives could be lost in a “human disaster”.
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Speaking during a briefing by leading scientists, Robert West, a member of the government’s SAGE advisory committee, said the current tier system was unlikely to contain the spread of the virus.
“We need to reset our strategy and move rapidly to a zero COVID strategy of the kind that many have been proposing,” he said.
“This will involve stricter but more rational social distancing rules across the country and finally be doing what we should have done from the start – to build the kind of test, travel, isolate and support programmes they have in countries in the Far East.
“It sounds expensive, but the alternative could well be a catastrophic collapse in confidence in the country’s ability to control the virus and the economic, human and social disaster that would follow.”