Huge queues have been seen at stations and on the roads as desperate Londoners flee the capital ahead of Tier 4 misery from Sunday.
On Saturday afternoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed that a third of England – including London and swathes of the home counties – will be thrust into a brutal ‘Tier 4’ lockdown from midnight.
The draconian bracket will see non-essential shops shut, and travel restrictions including a ‘stay at home’ order for Christmas Day itself – even though Mr Johnson insisted just days ago that it would be ‘inhuman’ to axe five-day festive ‘bubbles’.
The introduction of the new tier seeks to curb a new more infectious strain of the virus, Johnson explained during a press briefing.
Christmas plans for millions of Londoners were thrown into doubt by the Prime Minister’s announcement, with many planning on travelling out of the capital during the relaxation of coronavirus measures between December 23 and 27.
But with the planned relaxation cancelled, and the new rules coming into force from midnight, people were tonight scrambling to get out of London while they still could.
Reacting to the announcement, Nigel Farage mockingly tweeted: ‘Congratulations Prime Minister and your experts, you have caused the first evacuation of London since 1939.’
People wait on the concourse at Paddington Station in London on Saturday as people scramble to get out of London before Tier 4 rules come into power at midnight
Speaking during the press briefing after Tier 4 was announced, Professor Chris Whitty – Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Government – told anyone who was packing their bag to get out of London to ‘please unpack it’.
‘The reason for that is […] In the South East, 43 percent of the virus is now this new variant, in East of England it’s 59 percent, and in London it’s 62 percent,’ he said.
Areas that are experiencing higher numbers of the new variant are seeing higher numbers of hospitalisations when compared with other areas in the North of England, he explained,
For the 18 million people in London and the South East who will be living under Tier 4 restrictions from midnight on Saturday, travel into and out of areas in other tiers has been prohibited.
‘It is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned,’ Johnson told a news conference. ‘I sincerely believe there is no alternative open to me.’
London and southeast England – about a third of the English population – are currently in the highest level of a three-tier system of rules but will now be placed in a new Tier 4 level.
People go through barriers to catch trains at Paddington Station in London. The introduction of the new tier seeks to curb a new more infectious strain of the virus, Boris Johnson explained during a press briefing on Saturday
People in that tier will be required to stay at home except for essential reasons such as work, and non-essential retail will close, as will indoor leisure and entertainment. Social mixing will be limited to meeting one other person in an outdoor space.
Johnson had said on Friday he hoped England would not need a third lockdown after Christmas.
He had also resisted calls to change plans to ease restrictions for five days over the festive period and allow three separate households to meet indoors. He said on Wednesday it would be ‘frankly inhuman’ to ban Christmas.
However, those now in Tier 4 will not be allowed to mix with others over Christmas. And all others will now only be allowed to see friends and family for one day.
The new rules will come into effect from Saturday night at midnight.
Traffic seen on London’s A40 ahead of new coronavirus ‘Tier 4’ restrictions being imposed from midnight
Like other countries in Europe, Britain is battling to contain the virus. Johnson’s action comes after concern about a surge in cases, sparked by the new infectious strain of the virus – VUI202012/01.
It is the rate of infection that is worrying the government and its advisors.
‘There’s no evidence to suggest it is more lethal or causes more severe illness,’ Johnson said. ‘Equally, there’s no evidence to suggest the vaccine will be any less effective against the new variant.’
England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said authorities had alerted the World Health Organization and were continuing to analyse the available data to improve their understanding of the new strain.
Britain reported 27,052 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday and 534 deaths. The reproduction ‘R’ number is estimated to be between 1.1 and 1.2, meaning the number of cases is rapidly increasing.
‘Failing to act decisively now, will mean further suffering,’ Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said on Twitter.
Britain has been one of the worst hit European countries – with more than 67,000 deaths linked to coronavirus and more than 2 million cases reported.