English virus curbs extended as Covid variant surges
Tighter coronavirus restrictions will be extended across England from Thursday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced Wednesday, as he blamed a new Covid-19 variant for record case numbers this week.
The ramped-up rules, which require all non-essential shops, hairdressers as well as leisure and entertainment venues to close, will now apply to more than 44 million people -- three-quarters of England's population.
The so-called Tier 4 restrictions, which were already in place in London and surrounding areas, also mean people must stay at home other than for certain exceptions.
The rules are now being rolled out across most of the southwest, central, northwest and northeast parts of England.
Meanwhile, almost the entire remainder of the country will enter into Tier 3, which closes hospitality venues, and bars indoor and outdoor socialising between households.
The expansion of the curbs comes as the government struggles to contain surging infection rates blamed on a new coronavirus variant.
Britain on Wednesday registered 981 daily deaths within 28 days of testing positive for the virus -- the highest daily toll since early April -- taking the overall death toll to 72,548.
A further 50,023 positive cases within 24 hours were recorded.
Hancock told the UK parliament the majority of the new cases were believed to be the new variant.
"Unfortunately, this new variant is now spreading across most of England and cases are doubling fast," he added.
"Tiers three and four measures place a significant burden on people, and especially on businesses affected, but I'm afraid it's absolutely necessary because of the number of cases that we've seen."
Hancock said Wednesday was a day of "mixed emotions" because, hours before the new curbs were announced, Britain became the first country in the world to approve AstraZeneca and Oxford University's low-cost Covid vaccine.
The independent Medicines and Healthcare products and Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said the vaccine "met its strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness", and a roll-out was set for January 4.
"Whilst we have the good news of the vaccine today we also have to take some difficult decisions," Hancock said, noting the country's state-run health service was "under very significant pressure".
Meanwhile Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced secondary schools and colleges would welcome back students later in January than originally planned due to the situation.
Williamson said the delayed return would allow for more preparations for a mass testing programme in secondary schools and colleges next month.
He added primary school aged pupils in most areas were set to return on Monday as planned, while those in a small number of Tier 4 areas would not.
"We must always act swiftly when circumstances change," he told lawmakers, noting it was "a rapidly shifting situation".