Millions in England and Wales go into toughest restrictions

(BBC) – A stringent new Covid lockdown has come into force in London, parts of east and south-east England, and Wales.

Some 21 million people who entered new restrictions at midnight are being told to stay at home, while non-essential shops and businesses have to close.

A new tier four has been introduced in south-east England, after a new variant of coronavirus caused cases to soar.

The planned relaxation of rules for Christmas has been scrapped for those in England’s new tier of restrictions.

In the rest of England, Scotland and Wales relaxed indoor mixing rules are cut from five days to Christmas Day only.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told Sky’s Sophy Ridge programme that it was “our duty to act” after being presented with “new scientific evidence” about the new variant.

He said that everyone who lives in a tier four area “must behave as if they have the virus”.

Asked whether people living under the new toughest restrictions could be in those until a vaccine is rolled out, he said: “Given how much faster this new variant spreads, it is going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out.”

The tier four restrictions – similar to England’s second national lockdown – applies to all areas in the South East which were in tier three, covering Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey (excluding Waverley), Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings.

It also applies in London (all 32 boroughs and the City of London) and the East of England (Bedford, Central Bedford,

Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire and Essex (excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring).

London Mayor Sadiq Khan told BBC Breakfast the “11th-hour announcement is a bitter blow” for families and businesses, saying it’s the “chop-change, stop-start, that’s led to so much anguish, despair, sadness and disappointment”.

“I’m afraid it makes it really difficult for people like me to ask people to listen to us when we keep on changing our minds,” he said.

However, he urged Londoners to follow the rules which he said had been brought in “for a very good reason”, adding that the NHS had told him that hospitals in London had as many Covid patients this weekend as they did at the peak of the virus in April.

People elsewhere will be advised not to travel into a tier four area.

The changes for England, announced at a Downing Street briefing on Saturday, will last for two weeks with the first review due on 30 December.

In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford brought forward a lockdown, saying hundreds of people had already contracted the new, “more aggressive” strain of the virus there.

In Scotland, Covid restrictions will only be relaxed on Christmas Day, with mainland Scotland being placed under the tightest restrictions from Boxing Day.

A ban on travel to the rest of the UK will also apply over the festive period.

In Northern Ireland, no changes have been made to Christmas restrictions, with three households allowed to meet from 23 to 27 December. The country is set to enter a six-week lockdown from 26 December.