Over 38 million people in England face highest Covid-19 curbs

More than 38 million people in England will be ordered to comply with the toughest level of coronavirus restrictions from Saturday after the government moved to slow a surge in infections.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced Thursday that more parts of the east and southeast of England will face the toughest rules — meaning 68% of England’s population will be under tier 3, 30% in tier 2, and just 2% in the lowest tier 1.

The move is another huge blow to the hospitality industry ahead of Christmas, as tier 3 means pubs, restaurants, bars and indoor entertainment venues must close.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak said the government’s job support program, which pays 80% of furloughed workers wages, will be extended by a month to the end of April. The Treasury’s loan programs will also now end in March, rather than January.

London was moved to the highest tier on Wednesday after a rapid spread of infections across the capital in recent days. It will now be followed by the nearby counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Hertfordshire, most of Surrey, and parts of Cambridgeshire, East Sussex and Hampshire, Hancock told the House of Commons. Cases increased by 46% in southeast England in the last week.

The vast majority of regions already in tier 3, including Greater Manchester in northwest England, will stay in that bracket — prompting anger from local lawmakers including senior Conservative Graham Brady, who said the region has already been in “severe restrictions” for nine months.

The southwest city of Bristol and nearby north Somerset will move down to tier 2, and the West Midlands county of Herefordshire will drop to the lowest tier 1.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is going ahead with plans to let people celebrate with two other households over five days at Christmas, despite doctors warning the relaxation will lead to a spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The public must “exercise a high degree of personal responsibility” and “avoid contact with elderly people wherever possible,” he said on Wednesday.

Hancock said people must continue to “be cautious” as the U.K. rolls out a coronavirus vaccine.

“We’ve come so far, we mustn’t blow it now,” he told Parliament. “I regret having to take the action that we have to take. I deem it necessary and there is a strong view right across government that these actions are necessary.”

Johnson faces a looming battle with his own lawmakers when the restrictions are put to a vote at the end of January, with increasing numbers opposed to his coronavirus strategy.

Conservative MP Stephen McPartland said on Twitter it is “ridiculous” that his Hertfordshire district had been moved into tier 3. “Totally unacceptable and clearly shows I was right to vote against a second lockdown and tier system,” he wrote.

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