The new strain of COVID-19 is out of control and people need to behave as if they already have the virus, especially in the new Tier 4 areas of England, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned.
The five-day Christmas bubble period has been reduced to just Christmas Day for England, Wales and Scotland – and scrapped completely for areas in England under new Tier 4 rules – but remains in Northern Ireland.
The new tough coronavirus measures – which MPs will vote on in January – affect those in London, most of the South East, and many areas of eastern England.
Mr Hancock said everybody was looking forward to Christmas, but the new infectious and rapid-spreading new strain “was out of control” and the government had to act “quickly and decisively”.
He suggested the strengthened measures could be in place for months, telling Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “It (the new strain) is an enormous challenge, until we can get the vaccine rolled out to protect people. This is what we face over the next couple of months.”
He added: “Everybody, particularly people in Tier 4 areas, needs to behave as if they might well have the virus – that is the only way we are going to get it under control.”
He said controlling the new strain of COVID-19 is “more important now than ever”, that people stick to the rules and reduce social contact “because this is deadly serious”.
“This is a deadly disease, we need to keep it under control, and it has been made more difficult by this new variant.”
And he said scenes of people queueing at train stations, rushing to leave London before the new measures came into force this morning, was “totally irresponsible behaviour”.
Asked why the prime minister announced the Christmas relaxation rules weeks ago, when there was a chance he would have to renege on his promise, Mr Hancock said: “Because we understand, I understand, how important Christmas is to people.
“I understand how people feel. I had to call my mum last night and say, ‘We are not going to see each other over Christmas’.”
He said ministers had no choice but to act – effectively cancelling Christmas for millions of people – after being presented with the new scientific evidence on Friday afternoon.
Mr Hancock said cases have “rocketed” during the last few days and warned keeping the new variant under control until a vaccine has been rolled out would be “very difficult”.
“As of 8 o’clock yesterday morning 350,000 people have been vaccinated. We plan by the end of the weekend to have something around the half-million mark.”
“So we can see the way out through this but it is going to be a difficult few months,” he added.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused Boris Johnson of “gross negligence” and said the prime minister should apologise for his handling of the pandemic.
He said the British people were paying the price for the PM’s “incompetence” and that Mr Johnson’s “indecision” and “weak leadership” was “costing lives and costing jobs”.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he supported new restrictions being placed on the capital but criticised the government’s “incompetent” handling of the pandemic and accused it of giving people “false hope” over Christmas.
Mr Khan told Ridge: “All this was conceivable. What people want is clarity – instead what we got was stop-start change, marching us up a hill, then marching us down, marching us back up the hill, then marching us down again.”
He said the capital had experienced “the worst year we’ve had since the Second World War”.
British Medical Association (BMA) council chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said the planned five-day Christmas relaxation had not followed the science on the new variant, which he said “was spreading week-on-week” when the five-day rules were announced by the PM.
He told Ridge: “Last Wednesday, before the new variant was announced, it was obvious that the infection was spreading at a dangerous level, the NHS was in a dangerous state.”
But Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said the estimate that the new variant was up to 70% more transmissible was only confirmed on Friday.
She said it had spread to other parts of the UK, but in smaller amounts than London, Kent and parts of Essex, adding that there was no evidence it was causing a disproportionate number of hospital admissions.