The chief medical officer appeared to rule out any more areas moving down into tier 1, with the loosest curbs – arguing cases “will rise” if that happened.
Professor Whitty also warned that only the harshest tier 3 regime would cut infections, with tier 2 only strong enough to “hold the line”.
“If you're in tier one, the rates start to go up so you do not want to do that in winter, just before Christmas, going into the worst time for the NHS,” Professor Whitty told a press conference.
The message was echoed by Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, who said: “If you take the brakes off now, this will get up and run away.”
The gloomy messages came just minutes after Boris Johnson – fighting a Tory revolt against the harsher rules – insisted the tiers would be reviewed in mid-December.
“The allocation of tiers will be reviewed every 14 days, starting on the 16th of December, so your tier is not your destiny,” the prime minister said – in another apparent clash with his advisers.
“Every area has the means of escape and I have no doubt that, together, we can get through this winter, suppress the virus until vaccines come to our aid, and then we can reclaim our lives and all the things that we love.”
Only Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Isles of Scilly – 1 per cent of England – will be in tier 1 when the lockdown ends on 2 December, allowing all pubs and restaurants to reopen with table service only.
In contrast, 42 per cent of the country was before the second lockdown, triggering protests from many Tory MPs angered by the turning of the screw.
Professor Whitty warned: “Tier 1, which is very similar to the previous tier 1, slowed things down but did not stop the rise anywhere.”
And he added: “Almost certainly anywhere going into tier 1 will rise and the only places that are there are places with very low rates at the moment.”
In tier 2 areas, including London, pubs can reopen provided customers eat “substantial meals” – but, in tier 3, most cities in the North and Midlands, pubs and restaurants will remain closed.
Mr Johnson warned the country to swallow the pain now, or face a new national lockdown in the New Year.
But he insisted there would be some relief next Wednesday, saying: “This is not continuing the lockdown on the country.
“Across all tiers, shops will be open, hairdressers, personal services will be open, gyms, will be functioning, places of worship will be open for communal worship as well.
“So, this is a very different thing. But what we got to do is keep our eye on the prize.”