A third of the population of England will be barred from spending Christmas with other households after Boris Johnson ripped up his plans to allow five-day festive bubbles of up to three different households.
Mr Johnson announced at a press conference on Saturday afternoon that he had made the dramatic U-turn after a rapid spike in coronavirus cases in London, caused in part by a more infectious new strain of the virus.
An estimated 18m people living in the new tier 4 areas, which include London and much of the surrounding region, will be ordered to stay at home for a fortnight starting on Sunday morning.
They will be barred from socialising with more than one person even outdoors — meaning no Christmas gatherings of entire families — while shops, leisure facilities, gyms and hairdressers will be closed.
People living elsewhere in England in tiers 1-3 will still be allowed family gatherings over the festive period, but only for Christmas Day itself, rather than the previously planned five days.
The new restrictions — which prompted alarm among business leaders — is a volte-face for the prime minister, who said earlier this week that it would be inhuman to prevent families gathering next week.
Mr Johnson said that the new virus — named VUI2020/12/01 — could be more than 70 per cent more infectious than the previous variant, although there was no evidence that it had a higher mortality rate.
He said the government wanted people in all tiers to “stay local” at Christmas. “As prime minister, it is my duty to take the difficult decisions, to do what is right to protect the people of this country,” he said.
“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus, and the potential risk it poses, it is with a heavy heart that I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned.”
Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced a ban on travel between Scotland and other parts of the UK over the Christmas period.
She also slashed the amount of time that families in Scotland could spend in bubbles from five days to just Christmas Day itself — broadly in line with most of England.
Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford announced that its tier 4 rules would come into effect from midnight on Saturday rather than the previous threshold of December 28.
Ms Sturgeon said that the new, more infectious strain of coronavirus had reached Scotland.
“If we don’t act decisively it will take hold here,” she said. “Four weeks ago London’s cases were very low too and now they’re running out of control. That’s what we face in Scotland in the face of this severe warning.”
London cases have doubled in just one week with the new variant accounting for 60 per cent of those new infections, according to Downing Street officials.
Mr Johnson said he knew how important it was for families to be together and for grandparents to see their grandchildren. But he said he believed there was no alternative way to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed and thousands losing their lives.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said the public were “getting confusion where they need certainty” after the U-turn. He said the public should support the “necessary” measures, but said Mr Johnson had failed to take decisive action quickly enough.
“My frustration is that when I challenged the prime minister on this . . . [for him] three days later to change his mind, just before Christmas, many families will be wondering ‘how on earth did this happen?’”
All Covid restrictions will be reviewed on December 30, including the areas which will be plunged into tier 4 on Sunday such as London, Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hastings, most of Surrey, Gosport and Havant, the East of England and all of Essex apart from Colchester.
The new restrictions will come into force only a fortnight after Mr Johnson ended a previous month-long lockdown in favour of a new regional system of restrictions.
The new measures prompted alarm among many business groups and Tory MPs.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, described the decision as “hugely regrettable news” and called for additional financial support.
“Retailers have invested hundreds of millions of pounds making stores Covid-secure for customers and staff, and Sage’s advice has said throughout that closing non-essential retail has a minimal impact on the spread of the virus,” she said.
London First, the lobby group, said the new rules were “a further hammer blow” to Londoners and warned the closure of non-essential retail in the capital could see many businesses go under.
“With such a prolonged period of stop-start measures the public will want to know how the new restrictions will reduce infection rates and the government must stand ready to pump further support to those firms unable to trade normally,” it said.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs opposed to lockdown, said the restrictions should be put to a vote in the House of Commons. “As we deliver the vaccine to the most at-risk groups around the country, the public needs to see how this will translate into a return to normal life, with restrictions being lifted at every stage, and a clear road map to all our freedoms being restored as soon as this work is done.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Eley