NHS chiefs have warned that hospitals are already creaking under the strain, with fears of a ‘tsunami’ of cases after Boris Johnson refused to scrap five-day festive ‘bubbles’ that allow three households to mix.
Experts suggested this morning that infections could actually fall over Christmas because the two ‘main routes of infection’ – schools and workplaces – are closed.
However, SAGE member Professor John Edmunds cautioned that deaths were still likely to rise afterwards, because vulnerable elderly people would have been infected by family.
The growing anxiety in government about the coronavirus situation was underlined yesterday when swathes of the home counties were ordered into Tier 3 – meaning 68 per cent of England’s population will be subject to the top bracket from tomorrow.
London had already been escalate earlier in the week as an emergency measure, while there was fury in Manchester and the North East as they were denied a downgrade despite cases stabilising.
Secondary schools are also set to delay their return to classrooms in January, with lessons being conducted online for the first week as mass testing is put in place.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has previously endorsed a ‘Tier 4’ as a way of tightening restrictions in order to control the virus.
Wales is going into another lockdown after the festive bubbles end on December 28 and Northern Ireland has backed plans for a six-week shutdown starting on Boxing Day.
Scottish leaders said that tougher virus restrictions after Christmas – including a lockdown – were a ‘possibility’
In other coronavirus developments today:
- Half of adults across the country say they were planning to form a Christmas bubble, according to new data from the Office for National Statistics;
- Retail sales fell 3.8 per cent during the England-wide lockdown in November in evidence of the hit from the restrictions – although the drop was less than in the first squeeze in the spring;
- Rishi Sunak extended until May the £5billion-a-month furlough scheme amid fears that tough virus restrictions could extend beyond Easter;
- Fears of a third wave mounted as daily Covid cases jumped again to 35,383, although this included 11,000 from Wales which were not recorded earlier this month because of a computer glitch;
- London emerged as the new Covid hotspot with 319.3 cases per 100,000 people in the week to December 13, up more than 50 per cent from 199.9 in the previous week;
- Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that the combined impact of Covid and lockdowns would have a ‘substantial’ impact on health, education and poverty for years;
- Mr Johnson warned that Brexit talks were now in a ‘serious situation’ following a phone call with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen – although fishing rights now seem to be the only major sticking point.
On a round of interviews this morning, schools minister Nick Gibb said ‘we rule nothing out’ when asked about the possibility of a national lockdown after Christmas.
He was asked if the Government was going to prepare the rest of the country for lockdown, following announcements in Northern Ireland and Wales.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘We (in England) have a very localised approach because we have the data from the mass testing. Forty-six million tests have been issued through that Test and Trace system since the beginning.
‘It means that we can identify where, in particular local areas, infection rates are rising, and then we can apply those restrictions on an area-by-area basis through the tier system, and when infection rates are rising we will increase the tier from Tier two to Tier Three. When they’re falling, we will reduce it as we have in Bristol, North Somerset and in Herefordshire.’
Asked if there would be no national lockdown, he added: ‘We think the tier system is a very effective way, of course, (but) you know, we rule nothing out. This Government is absolutely determined to tackle this virus.’
He reiterated a warning of caution over Christmas.
He said: ‘We’re not there yet. That’s why we have to, all of us, be so careful over the Christmas period.
‘To have a short period of Christmas, to keep to small numbers the number of people who join you for Christmas, to make sure we keep this deadly virus under control.’
Prof Edmunds told Sky News that schools and offices closing over Christmas would mean the ‘two major routes’ of infection are stemmed.
‘So actually I think you might see that infections drop over the Christmas period,’ he said.
‘The problem is that is matched with increasing contacts across age groups. That is dangerous.
‘So although you might see fewer infections overall you may see a greater number of more serious infections, infections of elderly individuals or vulnerable individuals.
‘I think it is a risk. The relaxation of restrictions are probably not good for the epidemic, frankly… but they are probably good for people’s wellbeing in other ways.’
Tory MPs complained that yesterday’s tier moves heralded ‘the bleakest of midwinters, especially for hospitality businesses’.
But in spite of the bolstered restrictions, experts fear the decisions will not be enough to avert more draconian measures because Covid is surging nationally.
A Whitehall official told the Times: ‘There is a case for going further than Tier 3 and it is getting stronger.
‘[That could mean] closure of non-essential retail, stay-at-home orders. That would have to be actively considered in conversation with the local authority.’
A government source acknowledged that soaring cases in the run-up to Christmas, meant the situation was likely to remain ‘grim’ until February. Labour leader Keir Starmer said he was concerned the tier system was ‘just not strong enough to control the virus’.
Mr Johnson assured Tory MPs last month that ministers would take a more ‘granular’ approach to the Covid tiers in future, following anger that many rural areas with low case numbers were being lumped in with nearby urban hotspots.
But the first review of the tier allocations yesterday saw only a tiny number of areas move down the scale, while many more were moved up to the top tier.
Mr Hancock told MPs he regretted having to impose the curbs but said there was ‘a strong view right across Government that these actions are necessary’. Under Tier Three, pubs and restaurants can offer only takeaway or delivery and indoor entertainment venues, such as cinemas, bowling alleys and soft play centres must close.
Indoor socialising with other households is banned in both of the top two tiers, which now cover 98 per cent of England.
Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Peterborough, Hertfordshire, Surrey – with the exception of Waverley – Hastings and Rother -on the Kent border with East Sussex – and Portsmouth, Gosport and Havant in Hampshire were all yesterday told they will go into Tier Three from tomorrow.
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said he was ‘not surprised but very disappointed’ to remain in Tier Three, despite now having a lower case rate than London did when it was placed in Tier Two.
He added: ‘It feels like if the North has rising cases, the North goes under restrictions; if London and the South East has rising cases, everyone stays under restrictions.’
The long-term effects of the pandemic will be felt across the country for many years, Professor Whitty said last night.
Writing in the chief medical officer’s annual report about national health trends, he said: ‘The combined economic impact of Covid and countermeasures to reduce the size of the Covid waves are likely to be substantial.’