John Sibley | Reuters
LONDON — The U.K. government on Wednesday outlined plans to impose stricter coronavirus restrictions on millions of people across England as a new strain of the virus spreads across the country.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said more regions would be placed into the toughest Tier 4 category from 00:01 London time on Thursday.
“This new variant is now spreading across most of England and cases are doubling fast,” Hancock told the House of Commons. “It is therefore necessary to apply Tier 4 measures to a wider area, including the remaining parts of the southeast, as well as large parts of the midlands, the northwest, the northeast and the southwest.”
The move will mean three-quarters of the population will be in Tier 4 for the New Year, Hancock said.
The restrictions, which include a “stay at home” order, mean people must not leave their homes unless they have a reasonable excuse. Businesses including non-essential shops, gyms and hairdressers must close.
The announcement comes shortly after the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine was authorized for emergency use in the U.K. It is thought the vaccine will allow the U.K. to significantly ramp up its inoculation program.
“We need to vaccinate as quickly as supply allows following the necessary safety checks, of course, and the NHS stands ready to accelerate deployment at scale from Monday, Jan. 4,” Hancock said.
He added: “We have a total of 100 million doses on order, which combined with the Pfizer vaccine is enough to vaccinate every adult in the U.K., with both doses.”
Everyone that wants a vaccine will be able to get one, Hancock said, adding that the U.K. will have 530,000 doses available from Monday, with millions more due from Astra-Zeneca at the beginning of February.
Government data shows that infection rates have risen sharply across England in the last week, with significant pressure being placed on hospitals.
On Tuesday, 53,135 new Covid cases were recorded in the U.K., representing the highest single-day rise since mass testing commenced.
On Wednesday, the latest government figures showed that 981 people in the U.K. died within 28 days of a positive Covid test — the highest number of fatalities recorded since April 9. The U.K. reported 414 deaths within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test on Tuesday.
The new coronavirus variant found in the U.K. is reportedly more transmissible and has led to travel restrictions for people wanting to leave the country. The new strain, referred to as SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01 in the science community, could be as much as 70% more transmissible, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said.
U.S. health officials confirmed the first case of the new strain on Wednesday. Several other countries have also identified the variant strain in recent weeks.