The Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor has said there will be a spike in Covid cases after an “inevitable period of mixing” over Christmas, and suggested restrictions will be tightened over the coming weeks.
The prediction comes after a mutant strain of coronavirus appeared to be responsible for a surge in cases in London and the South East of England.
After scientists suggested the new virus was 70 per cent more transmittable, the Prime Minister introduced tougher ‘Tier 4’ restrictions in these areas from Dec 20.
Patrick Vallance told a Downing Street briefing on December 21: “The evidence on this virus is that it spreads easily, 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.”
There is no evidence that the new strain has a higher mortality rate or that the new vaccine will be ineffective against it.
The latest restrictions affect around 18 million people living in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Essex (except for Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring), London, Peterborough, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey (except for Waverley), Hastings and Rother, Portsmouth, Gosport, and Havant.
The measures come after the latest data revealed Covid-19 case rates were rising in 90 per cent of all local areas in England, in the seven days up to Dec 17.
“Given the early evidence we have on this new variant of the virus, and the potential risk it poses, it is with a very heavy heart that I must tell you that we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,” the Prime Minister has said.
The Prime Minister also announced “with a heavy heart” that the three household rule will now only apply to Dec 25, rather than the whole period of Dec 23 to 27.
Meanwhile, those in Tier 4 areas cannot mix with any other households over Christmas, but support bubbles can continue for those at particular risk of isolation or loneliness.
The rules will next be reviewed on Dec 30, and Mr Johnson has refused to rule out the possibility of a third lockdown for England after Christmas.
2,073,511 people have tested positive for the virus so far, and there have been 67,616 deaths recorded within 28 days of a positive test.
Will the tiers remain the same?
Before the House of Commons voted to introduce the new tier system on Dec 1, Boris Johnson told MPs that the Tiers would be decided on a more “granular” basis after the review on Dec 16.
Following the review, Matt Hancock announced that swathes of East and South-East England would enter Tier 3 from Dec 19, including Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Peterborough, Essex (except for Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring), Hertfordshire, Surrey (except for Waverley), Hastings and Rother, Portsmouth, Gosport, and Havant.
Despite the official review date, Mr Hancock announced on Dec 14 that all 32 boroughs in Greater London, along with parts of Essex and Kent, will enter Tier 3 from 00.01 on Dec 16.
Ministers chose to act “ahead of the formal review date” in order to place Greater London and parts of Essex and Kent under the highest level of curbs.
On Saturday, December 19, Boris Johnson announced all areas which had been moved to Tier 3 would be lifted into a new level of restrictions – Tier 4, in which Christmas bubbles are no longer allowed.
On the passing of these restrictions, Mr Johnson argued: “As we go forward, and I mean this very sincerely, the Government will look at how we can reflect as closely as possible the reality of what is happening on the ground, looking at the incidence of the disease, the human geography and spread of the virus.”
At a press briefing from Downing Street on Dec 14, Matt Hancock revealed the UK has seen a 14% increase in cases in the last week. He added, there are also “16,531 Covid patients in hospitals across the UK, which is also up.
As scientists confirmed this week that the new variant of Covid-19 was spreading rapidly in London and the South East, Mr Johnson was forced to hold urgent talks with Cabinet ministers. It was in an emergency press conference on Dec 19, that the Prime Minister announced that London and the South East would move into Tier 4, the highest set of restrictions.
The next official review of the tier system will be on Dec 30.
The Telegraph’s map below plots where all official cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the UK. It is sourced from Public Health England announcements and updated regularly based on trustworthy data.
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How the UK got into and out of – and back into – a national lockdown
The Prime Minister ordered people only to leave their homes under a list of “very limited purposes”, banning mass gatherings and ordering the closure of non-essential shops.
Mr Johnson announced his phase two strategy on May 10, outlining a gradual easing of the restrictions, rather than a wholesale lifting of the lockdown. However, reaction to his speech was fierce, with many accusing the Prime Minister of confusing the British public.
On May 11, Mr Johnson published his “roadmap” to leave lockdown, setting out a three-phase strategy to gradually lift the current restrictions.
On June 23 – exactly three months after the country was put into lockdown – Mr Johnson hailed the beginning of the end of Britain’s “national hibernation”.
The Prime Minister allowed families and friends to mingle indoors and even go on holiday together from July 4. This day, which became known as Super Saturday, also saw pubs, restaurants and hairdressers reopen, as the two metre social distancing rule was reduced to one metre.
But Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, warned that many of new social distancing measures would have to remain in place “until this time next year” because a coronavirus vaccine is still a long way off.
On July 17, Mr Johnson set out his roadmap for ending lockdown, which allowed remaining leisure facilities to reopen and all beauty treatments to resume from August 1. Mr Johnson also relaxed official guidance advising people to “work from home if you can” in a bid to restart the economy.
The government is keen to avoid another blanket lockdown. However, preventing a national lockdown will depend on how effectively the Government can respond if the infection rate rises quickly in multiple areas of the UK.
As of September 14, gatherings of more than six people are banned in England. The Government has introduced these tough new measures to combat a sharp rise in coronavirus infection rates.
On September 22, the Prime Minister announced a raft of new measures including a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants, a 15-person cap on weddings and a return to working at home for office workers, which are likely to remain in place until March, a year on from the start of lockdown.
As the rate of new cases showed no sign of slowing, Mr Johnson announced on October 12 a new three-tier system of local lockdowns.
Faced with rising infections, Mr Johnson announced a new national lockdown across England on Saturday 31 October, after a rapid rise in coronavirus cases. The new measures came into effect on Thursday 5 November and ended on Wednesday 2 December.
The three-tier system was reintroduced when the second national lockdown was lifted, only to be extended to a fourth tier in a bid to limit the spread of the new strain of Covid-19.
How might we prevent another lockdown in the future?
The Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine was first administered on Dec 8 in 70 hospitals, and GP’s in England have started offering the jab to those on the priority list.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) granted the vaccine an emergency use license on Dec 2, and one million jabs were delivered to the NHS on Dec 3.
The UK has secured 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine overall, which has shown over 90 per cent efficacy at preventing Covid-19 in those without evidence of prior infection. The Oxford vaccine is about 70 per cent effective but easier to manufacture and distribute.
Moderna has also revealed a vaccine which was up to 95 per cent effective in trials and it was approved for use in the US on December 18.
Despite these advances, scientists have emphasised that the pandemic is far from over.
Head of the Imperial College vaccine programme professor Robin Shattock told Sky News that “one vaccine isn’t going to be enough” to tackle Covid-19.
“We don’t know if [the Pfizer vaccine] will be effective in all different groups, so the more vaccine candidates we have, the better the toolbox is,” he said.
“I think the biggest danger now that we’ve got a vaccine is that people may stop taking it seriously,” he added. “We need to remind people that it’s not all over until enough people have received the vaccine, and that we really know it works.”
The CEO of BioNTech, Professor Uğur Sahin, said he expects the antibody response in patients “will decline over time”, but mooted the idea of combining vaccines for people who no longer had an immune response.
Professor Wendy Barkley, an Imperial virology scientist who sits on the Government’s Sage committee, expressed over mutations after minks contracted the virus in Denmark.
“If mutations affecting the way antibodies can see the virus, maybe the vaccines we’re generating now won’t work quite as well as we’d hoped,” she told The Andrew Marr Show.
Furthermore, on December 14, in his address to Commons, the Health Secretary also announced a new variant of coronavirus had been identified in England.
However, Mr Hancock has said it is “highly unlikely” that the new variant will cause a more serious disease or compromise the vaccine.
In his address to the Commons, he shared: “I must stress at this point that there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease and the latest clinical advice is that it’s highly unlikely that this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows we’ve got to be vigilant and follow the rules and everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.”
What else is being done?
Free vitamins for the elderly and vulnerable: On November 28, health officials shared that over 2.5 million vulnerable people across England will be given free Vitamin D supplements to assist them through the winter months. Those in care homes and those who are categorised as clinically extremely vulnerable will be offered the vitamin, which is renewed for its bone and muscle health benefits.
Normally, the skin produces Vitamin D after spending time in the sunlight; however, those at most risk have spent a significant amount of time inside while shielding from Covid-19. Officials suggest that everybody should consume 10 micrograms of Vitamin D over the winter period, however, there is no evidence that vitamin D will protect against catching, or treating the virus.
How did coronavirus spread?
At the end of December 2019, the Chinese authorities sent out a public alert warning that a “pneumonia of unknown cause” had been identified in Wuhan, central China.
Some 10 days later, on January 7, 2020, scientists announced that a new coronavirus was the source of the outbreak – quickly adding that it did not appear to be spreading between humans.
At that point, fewer than 60 cases had been found. The UK’s first confirmed cases were diagnosed on January 31 – tourists in York – although a number of people had fallen ill with Covid-like symptoms earlier in the year after returning from abroad.
The virus, since given the name SARS-CoV-2, has spread to well over 180 countries, infecting more than 76.9 million people with the disease Covid-19 and killing more than 1.6 million. Scientists believe that the virus mutated into two strains based on differentiation of the protein “Spike” that gives the virus its distinctive “crown” shape. An “L-type” variation accounted for around 70 per cent of cases, displacing the older “S-type”. It is a matter of scientific debate whether this means the newer variant is more infectious, while vaccine developers believe that new treatments will be effective against both current strains.
This map, which updates automatically, shows where the disease is now, how many cases there have been and how many people have died: