Plymouth is a “hot spot” in Devon for the new virus mutant.
By Laura Donnelly, Health Editor and Lucy Fisher, Deputy Political Editor www.telegraph.co.uk
Government sources warn there is ‘high chance’ of full national lockdown in New Year as virus mutation ‘bleeds’
A swathe of areas hit by surging coronavirus rates are likely to be placed into Tier 4 restrictions from Boxing Day, ministers will announce on Wednesday.
Ministers are expected to sign off plans for tougher measures for many areas at a meeting of the Covid-O operations committee as concern grows about the virus mutation spreading from the South-East.
Government sources have warned that there is a “high chance” of a full national lockdown in the New Year.
Under the Boxing Day measures, the worst-hit places will be plunged into Tier 4 – a “stay home” measure akin to lockdown that was introduced in London and much of the South-East earlier this week – and many areas in the lower tiers could be moved to Tier 3, forcing the closure of all pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops.
On Tuesday night, health officials and local leaders in Birmingham held a Gold Command meeting to discuss whether to request that the city and its 1.1 million residents be moved into Tier 4.
Areas on the edges of the current tiers are particularly vulnerable, with health officials warning that the new variant of the virus is “bleeding” across boundaries. Hotspots of the mutation have been found in Cumbria and Devon, as well as across large parts of Sussex, Surrey, Essex and Norfolk, just beyond the borders of the current Tier 4.
Health officials are concerned that the exodus of large numbers of people from Tier 4 areas into the Midlands and the North has fuelled the spread. On Monday, Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, said cases were “everywhere” and signalled that restrictions are set to increase.
A Government source said: “Changes are expected, including in some areas that are currently on the margins and edges of Tier 4 areas. We’re concerned that some areas have had significant increases in case numbers as a result of the mutation.”
Whitehall sources said there was now “a high chance” that the country would be placed into a third lockdown after Christmas. One said: “The expectation now is that we can get through Christmas, but after that the chances of a full lockdown in the New Year look pretty high.”
The source added that while ministers were reluctant to announce such measures and would prefer to extend the use of Tier 4, “there comes a point where it doesn’t make much sense to stick with it”.
“If the new variant continues to bleed across the country, and we see more cases of it in the North, then there isn’t much of a case for keeping anyone out of Tier 4, so it amounts to a national lockdown, whether it is called it or not,” the source said.
“No decision has been taken, but the numbers look awful – everything is going the wrong way, and the numbers are worse than those that triggered the December lockdown.”
In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon said a full lockdown may be imposed due to concerns about the virus variant. The First Minister also suggested a week-long delay to Scottish schools reopening after the Christmas holidays, currently set to end on January 11, could be extended.
“It seems that we are facing a virus that spreads much faster now than in March, so we need to consider whether the current level four restrictions will be sufficient to suppress it,” she said.
“It took a really strict lockdown earlier in the year to get the ‘R’ number back below one. We face a situation now where ‘R’ is around one again and we have a virus transmitting more quickly.
“For those living in level 4 areas – which from Saturday will be the vast majority of us – our strong advice is to stay as local as possible and at home as much as possible. We will be considering in the days ahead whether we need to place that advice in law.”
On Sunday, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said those who had fled London for the North after the Tier 4 travel ban was announced were “totally irresponsible”. Health chiefs from the North and Midlands have since pleaded with those who took such journeys to isolate for 10 days, and turn away any visitors on Christmas Day.
The advice came after scenes of people packing railway stations in London hours before Tier 4 controls came into force at midnight on Saturday, prompting fears the more infectious new variant could be spread across the country.
Genetic data, mapping the spread of the new variant, show that it has emerged in areas hundreds of miles apart. A map released by Public Health England showed that labs had found significant numbers of cases of the new variant across the South-East, in areas just outside the Tier 4 restrictions.
Wealden, in East Sussex, has weekly rates of 287 cases per 100,000 after numbers more than doubled in a week, and at least 30 per cent of cases involve the mutated strain.
Across the rest of the county, rates more than tripled in a week in Eastbourne and Lewes, while they have doubled in Crawley and Tendring. In each area, at least 20 per cent of cases involve the new mutation. Similarly, Waverley in Surrey – also just outside current Tier 4 areas – has also registered a doubling in the rates.
The data also show hotspots much further afield. While case numbers are lower, Allerdale, in Cumbria, and Plymouth, in Devon, are both singled out as areas where at least one in five cases is the mutation, with numbers rising.
Health chiefs in Cumbria have said the new variant could be behind “skyrocketing” increases in a number of areas.
Colin Cox, the director of public health for Cumbria, said rates in the district of Eden had risen to 345 cases per 100,000 people, the highest seen in the county to date.
He said: “It’s pretty clear that while it is the South-East of England that is having the worst of it right now, this new variant is already present in most parts of the country.
“Only a small number of cases have been positively identified in Cumbria, but what is happening in Eden, which throughout the pandemic has had low levels of infection and now has the highest we’ve seen, points to something different going on.”