Londoners visited pubs last night for one final drink before the capital was put under strict tier three rules today.
Thousands took their last chance to revel with friends and family in the central part of the city before bars shut at 11pm, probably for the last time in 2020.
People were seen singing and revelling in the streets, many wearing Christmas hats to join in the festive spirit.
With all of London’s 32 boroughs – and also parts of Essex and Hertfordshire – plunged into tier three at 00.01 today, this means 34 million people are now living under the strictest coronavirus restrictions.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘Over the last week we have seen very sharp, exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire.
‘We have to take swift and decisive action which unfortunately is absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out.’
His comments came two days before a planned review of the tier system, due to huge spikes in cases of Covid-19 in parts of the South East.
He revealed a new variant of coronavirus has been identified in the UK and may be more contagious, and responsible for the rise in cases across the South East.
‘We have identified a new variant of coronavirus which may be associated with the faster spread in the south of England,’ Mr Hancock added.
‘Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants.
‘We have currently identified over 1,000 cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly.’
Tier three rules mean as well as pubs, bars and restaurants closing, indoor entertainment venues including cinemas and theatres will also be shut while fans are banned from sporting venues.
People are only allowed to meet up with others they don’t live with in public open spaces, in groups of no more than six.
The latest figures show infection rates are rising in all 32 boroughs of London, and the biggest rise is in Havering which has seen an increase from 348.3 to 540.9 per 100,000 people.
This is also the highest rate anywhere in London, and the fourth highest in the whole of England.
A total of 15 areas with the top 50 highest rates in England are currently in London.
Much of the North East, North West and the Midlands are already in tier three, but under the review expected today may be allowed to move down a tier if infection rates have dropped low enough.
It comes as the Prime Minister is set to defend his Christmas ‘bubbles’ plan in the Commons today despite fears it may cause infection rates to rise exponentially across the country.
The Tory leader apparently believes any alternative is likely to be met with resistance from the public, with millions looking forward to seeing their families at the end of the month.
But medics have warned ‘many lives will be lost’ if the plans go ahead.
Instead of cancelling the plans, Boris Johnson is expected to urge the public to self-isolate before mixing with other households and to think carefully about meeting with elderly or vulnerable relatives.
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