A bus drives past a sign detailing measures taken by the government against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak on the first day of a newly imposed lockdown on November 5, 2020 in London, UK.
John Sibley | Reuters
LONDON – The UK government on Wednesday outlined plans to impose stricter coronavirus restrictions on millions of people across England as a new strain of the virus spreads across the country.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that as of 12:01 p.m. London time on Thursday, more regions would be placed in the toughest Tier 4 category.
"This new variant is now spreading in most of England and the cases are quickly doubling," Hancock told the House of Commons. "It is therefore necessary to apply Tier 4 measures to a larger area, including the remaining parts of the south-east as well as large parts of the central plateau, the north-west, the north-east and the south-west."
The move will mean three-quarters of the population will be in Tier 4 over the New Year break, Hancock said.
The restrictions that come with an order to stay at home mean people are not allowed to leave their homes unless they have a reasonable excuse. Businesses such as unnecessary shops, gyms and hairdressers will have to close.
The announcement came shortly after the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine was approved for use in the UK emergency, raising expectations that the UK will significantly speed up its vaccination program.
"We must of course vaccinate as soon as supplies allow, after the necessary security checks have been carried out, and the NHS is ready to accelerate the deployment on a larger scale from Monday January 4th," said Hancock.
"We have ordered a total of 100 million doses, which together with the Pfizer vaccine is enough to vaccinate every adult in the UK with both doses."
Anyone who wants a vaccine can get one, Hancock said, adding that the UK will have 530,000 doses available as of Monday, with millions more due from Astra-Zeneca in early February.
Government data shows that infection rates have risen sharply across England over the past week, with significant pressure on hospitals.
53,135 new infections were registered in the UK on Tuesday, the highest increase in a day since mass testing began.
On Wednesday, the latest government figures showed 981 people in the UK died within 28 days of a positive Covid test – the highest number of deaths since April 9. The UK reported 414 deaths within 28 days of testing positive on Tuesday.
The new variant of the virus found in the UK is reportedly more transmissible and has resulted in travel restrictions for people trying to leave the country. The new strain, dubbed SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01, could be up to 70% more transmissible, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.
U.S. health officials on Wednesday confirmed the new strain's first case. Several other countries have also identified the strain in the past few weeks.