Boris Johnson will meet with senior ministers this evening to decide which areas of England should face tougher coronavirus restrictions.
It comes amid suggestions some areas could be plunged into a new tier five lockdown while millions more people could find themselves living under tier four rules in the new year.
The new measures are set to be announced tomorrow in what would be the third crackdown in little more than a week, after tighter curbs were introduced shortly before Christmas Eve and then again on Boxing Day.
It is understood the PM will hear the advice of his medical and scientific experts at a crunch meeting tonight before deciding what course of action to take.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock will then make an announcement in the House of Commons on Wednesday, immediately after a vote on the Brexit trade deal.
The Government has not ruled out tougher new ‘tier five’ restrictions, which could close schools and universities, or the prospect of a new national lockdown in January.
However, a Whitehall source said that in the ‘immediate future’ the expansion of tier four was more likely
According to the Daily Telegraph, two-thirds of England could be forced to live under the toughest tier four restrictions following tomorrow’s review.
A health official told the publication: ‘Coronavirus cases are rising across the country fuelled by the new variant, which has spread far beyond London and the South-East.
‘I would expect more than half of England to move into Tier 4, but it wouldn’t surprise me if two thirds end up in the top tier. There is also real concern about the South African variant which seems to be spreading fast.
‘Unfortunately, more action is needed to combat rising cases across the board.’
The Black Country is understood to be an area of particular concern, with Wolverhampton driving up infection rates in Staffordshire.
It is thought Cumbria could jump from tier two to tier four as rates in the North West county soar, while Lancashire could also move up a tier due to rising cases in Pendle and Burnley.
However, some scientists fear expanding tier four does not go far enough as a new more infectious variant of the virus spreads across the country.
The UK has seen a spike in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks and yesterday recorded its highest number of positive tests since the start of the pandemic.
Health bosses have warned that doctors and nurses are ‘back in the eye of the storm’ with the number of people in hospitals exceeding that of April’s peak.
Despite the worsening crisis, it was revealed today that emergency Nightingale Hospitals remain empty.
Scientists advising the Government are understood to have advised Mr Johnson to impose tougher measures than those rolled out in November’s lockdown.
One of Number 10’s scientific advisers today warned England must be plunged into a third national shutdown to prevent a ‘catastrophe’ in the New Year.
Professor Andrew Hayward, an epidemiologist at University College London and a member of SAGE warned the country is entering a ‘very dangerous new phase of the pandemic’.
He called for ministers to ‘learn the lessons’ of earlier waves, when the Government was criticised for being too slow to lockdown.
‘We’re entering a new dangerous phase of the pandemic and we’re going to need decisive, early, national action to prevent a catastrophe in January and February,’ Professor Hayward said.
‘A 50 per cent increase in transmissibility means that the previous levels of restrictions that worked before won’t work now and so Tier 4 restrictions are likely to necessary or even higher than that.’
Professor Hayward said the rise in cases was ‘very largely driven’ by the new, more infectious variant of coronavirus that emerged in Kent earlier this month, sparking dozens of countries to impose travel bans to the UK. He suggested that allowing pupils to return to schools would mean stricter restrictions in other areas of society would be needed.
A Cabinet battle is said to be raging over whether to keep some schools closed in January to curb transmission. Unconfirmed reports suggest the reopening of schools could be delayed by a week, but no formal decision is expected to be made today.
Responding to Professor Hayward’s comments, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said: ‘I would point back to what we have done throughout the pandemic where we have taken action based on the latest scientific and medical evidence.
‘You have seen us do that throughout December when we have moved areas into Tier 4 exactly for the reason to reduce the transmission of the virus and to try and reduce the R rate of the virus in the areas where prevalence is high.’
More than six million people in east and south-east England went into the highest tier four level of restrictions on Saturday, meaning they could not see their loved ones on Christmas Day. Those measures now affect 24 million people, representing 43 % of the population.
On Monday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove failed to dismiss the suggestion that the whole of England could be moved into tier four.
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