LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday (Dec 19) announced a "stay at home" order for London and southeast England to slow a new coronavirus strain that is significantly more infectious.
Early data suggests the new strain could be "up to 70 per cent more transmissible," Johnson said at a televised briefing.
He ordered new restrictions for London and south-eastern England from Sunday, saying that under the new "tier four" rules, "residents in those areas must stay at home" at least until Dec 30.
The aim of the new rules is to slow the spread of the new strain to areas where it is not yet prevalent.
The measures will mean around a third of England's population cannot travel or meet other households for Christmas.
It was a dramatic step-up after Johnson said last week that it would be "inhuman" to "cancel Christmas" by banning family gatherings, though he urged people to have small celebrations.
"It is with a very heavy heart I must tell you we cannot continue with Christmas as planned," Johnson told the nation.
"Alas when the facts change, you have to change your approach."
The announcement came as Britain has seen rising cases and hospital admissions this month.
"This virus has taken off, it's moving fast, and it's leading inevitably to a sharp increase in hospital admissions," said Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser.
COVID-19 vaccines appear to be adequate in generating an immune response to the variant of the coronavirus.
"We think it (the variant) may be in other countries as well," Vallance told reporters. "It may have started here, we don't know for sure."
Vallance said in parts of England, including London, the south east and east of England, the new variant was becoming the dominant form.
"There is no evidence it causes a more severe disease, causes more hospitalisation, causes more trouble than the other virus, it basically looks similar."
Non-essential shops, gyms, cinemas, bowling alleys, casinos, hairdressers and nail bars will be closed in London and other affected regions, including Kent, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire.
Only one person from one household will be allowed to meet one person from another household in a public place, outside.
Chief medical officer Chris Whitty said that while there was no current evidence the variant of the coronavirus causes a higher mortality rate or impacted vaccines, urgent work was underway to confirm this.
"We have alerted the World Health Organization and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding," Whitty said in a statement.
Britain reported 27,052 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday and 489 deaths, slightly less than on Friday.
Much of the country, including London, is currently in the highest of a three-tier system of restrictions to curb the pandemic's spread. The Daily Telegraph newspaper said ministers could now announce curbs on travel between southeast England, including the capital, and the rest of the country.
The BBC said these areas would now be placed in a new Tier 4, with a tightening of rules for Christmas.
"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. "We must keep asking ourselves 'are we doing enough, are we acting quickly enough'."
The opposition Labour Party said the tiering system had failed to curb the virus' spread.
"It has been apparent for some days that the virus is again out of control in parts of the country," said Jonathan Ashworth, Labour's health spokesman.