Pubs in tier two areas were packed on Wednesday night as residents headed out for a final drink with a substantial meal.
Hospitality venues in all but one part of England will have to close from midnight on Thursday under new measures to control rising coronavirus cases.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said three-quarters of England will enter New Year’s Eve under tier four lockdown restrictions, including the Midlands, parts of the North East and North West and parts of the South West.
Almost all remaining areas will be moved into tier three, except for the Isles of Scilly which will remain in tier one, the lowest level of restrictions.
It comes as a huge blow to the hospitality sector as pubs, bars and restaurants must shut under the rules of tier three and four.
The majority of the population was already living under the toughest two tiers before today’s announcement, but those still in level two made the most of their final night of relative freedom.
Pictures show bars looking busy in cities such as Liverpool and Exeter, while people in tier three areas enjoyed a takeaway drink on the streets.
A total of 44 million people will be in tier four from New Years Eve, or 78% of the population of England, while 22% will be living under tier three rules.
While people in tier three are allowed to go outside without reason and can travel, those in tier four must stay at home and can only leave for essential reasons such as to get food, medicine or for work.
Mr Hancock said the draconian measures were ‘absolutely necessary’ to bring down rising hospital admissions fuelled by a more infectious strain of the virus spreading across the country.
Areas being moved up to tier four include all of the North East, Cumbria, Cheshire, Warrington, Greater Manchester and Lancashire. They will be joined by most of the West Midlands and all of the East Midlands, except Rutland, as well as areas in the South-East not already under the stay-at-home orders.
Meanwhille Cornwall, Bath, North East Somerset, Liverpool and North Yorkshire will all be put under tier three.
Greater Manchester’s City Council leader Richard Leese said moving to tier four is a ‘critical blow’ to the hospitality and retail sectors whose economic resilience is ‘wearing thin’.
The region was first placed in tier three on October 23, and has had restrictions on groups meeting indoors since July.
Meanwhile hospitality venue owners in tier two have described the last-minute announcement that they can no longer operate on New Year’s Eve as ‘devastating’.
UKHospitality Chief Executive Kate Nicholls said without further support from the Government the sector could witness a ‘bloodbath’ with many businesses not surviving.
The measures come despite a breakthrough with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which was approved by regulators today.
Addressing the nation after Mr Hancock updated the commons, Boris Johnson said he ‘bitterly regrets’ having to plunge more areas into tougher restrictions but said it was necessary as ‘the virus is really surging’.
He said the vaccination roll-out and the stricter tier system could mean a normal spring is on the cards.
But he urged people to follow the rules in their area and ‘see in the New Year safely at home’ to save lives and protect the NHS.
Today a further 50,000 cases of the virus were recorded, while 981 deaths were reported in the highest daily figure since April 24.
There are now more people in hospitals across England than there were during the Spring peak, with health bosses warning that hospitals are at breaking point.
Ambulances were queuing outside hospitals in London and Birmingham last night, while ICUs in the capital have asked major hospitals in Yorkshire to take patients in need of intensive care.
In another major move to control the spread of the virus, around a million primary school pupils in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 will not return to their desks as planned next week.
The expected staggered reopening of secondary schools in England will also be delayed.
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