Coronavirus restrictions are set to continue until at least the end of March in England, after Boris Johnson announced a new set of tightened rules to replace the current lockdown.
The prime minister acknowledged that the UK was facing a “hard winter” but insisted that an escape route from the pandemic was “in sight” in the shape of vaccines and improved testing.
During a prime-time televised address to the nation, he forecast that with a “favourable wind” the vast majority of those most at risk from Covid-19 would be inoculated by Easter.
But he added: “This is not the moment to let the virus rip for the sake of Christmas parties.
“’Tis the season to be jolly, but it is also the season to be jolly careful, especially with elderly relatives.”
That view was echoed by England chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty who urged the public not to “go wild” if restrictions are eased as expected around Christmas.
Speaking earlier in the day as scientists announced that a vaccine developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca could begin rollout in the UK within weeks, Mr Johnson confirmed that the England-wide lockdown will end at one minute past midnight on 2 December, with the country returning to a three-tier system of regional restrictions.
The PM said the new system will be tighter than in October, with more of the country going into the most stringent tiers 2 and 3, after his Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) found the original scheme was “not tough enough” to drive the reproduction (R) rate of Covid below the crucial level of one, under which the disease would die.
But it emerged that he rejected Sage advice to create a new tier 4 for the worst-hit areas to “guarantee a reduction in prevalence” in the run-up to Christmas.
Under the new system, shops, gyms, places of worship, hairdressers, beauty salons and the wider leisure sector will be able to reopen in England, while outdoors sports can resume and up to 4,000 spectators will be allowed to watch matches. Restrictions on leaving home will be lifted, though people will still be advised to work from home if possible.
Meanwhile, a six-week surge of testing will be implemented in tier 3 areas, with the prospect of greater freedoms being permitted to those testing negative.
The “rule of six” limit on the maximum size of social contacts will be reintroduced indoors and outdoors in tier 1 areas. Indoor mixing of households and support bubbles will be banned in tier 2 and in tier 3, mingling of households will be allowed only in parks and other outdoor public spaces.
Tier 1 pubs and restaurants will be table-service only, while hospitality venues in tier 2 will be allowed to open only if serving substantial meals and in tier three it will be takeaways and deliveries only.
A new curfew for pubs and restaurants will allow last orders at 10pm, with closing time at 11pm, in a bid to avoid the scenes of crowds in the streets seen under earlier arrangements requiring all drinkers and diners to be thrown out on the dot of 10pm.
Up to 4,000 spectators will be permitted in outdoor sports in tier 1 and 2,000 in tier 2, up to a maximum of 50 per cent of venue capacity, but audiences will continue to be banned in tier 3. Theatres will be permitted to open with audiences of up to 1,000 in tiers 1 and 2, again up to a maximum of 50 per cent of venue capacity.
Soft play areas, museums and galleries will be allowed to open in tier 1 and 2 areas, while swimming pools can be used throughout England.
Weddings and civil partnership ceremonies will be restricted to 15 guests across the country, but receptions will be allowed only in tiers 1 and 2.
“Without sensible precautions, we would risk the virus escalating into a winter or new year surge,” said the prime minister in a remote address to parliament which was interrupted at one point when his video link broke down. “The incidence of the disease is, alas, still widespread in many areas.”
He warned: “2020 has been in many ways a tragic year, when so many have lost loved ones and faced financial ruin, and this will be still a hard winter. Christmas cannot be normal and there’s a long road to spring. But we have turned a corner and the escape route is in sight
“We must hold out against the virus until testing and vaccines come to our rescue and reduce the need for restrictions.”
Details of relaxed restrictions for up to five days over Christmas are expected later this week, as negotiations continue with devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over a “special, time-limited Christmas dispensation”, allowing three or more households to gather for family celebrations.
But Mr Johnson warned that “the virus isn’t going to grant a Christmas truce” and urged Britons to think carefully about spending time with elderly relatives over the festive period.
“The people of this country can see that there is a real risk that if we blow it at Christmas with a big blowout Christmas, then we’ll pay for it in the new year,” he said. “They want a cautious and balanced approach and that’s what we will deliver for the whole UK.”
Despite the lifting of lockdown, business groups said companies would still face tough conditions in the crucial pre-Christmas period which many rely on for a large proportion of their profits.
The British Retail Consortium said shopkeepers were “relieved” at the decision to allow them to open their doors, which would “help to preserve jobs and the economy and help keep Christmas a festive occasion for everyone”.
But CBI director-general Josh Hardie said business failures remained a risk in many sectors, adding: “The next few weeks and months will for many feel like purgatory – stuck in limbo between a national lockdown and a new normal.”
And the British Beer and Pub Association said that despite the welcome extension of curfew, the sector was facing “carnage”, with 90 per cent of pubs in tier 2 and all of those in tier 3 rendered unviable by the new restrictions.
Chief executive Emma McClarkin said: “Our sector has been singled out by these new measures which unfairly target pubs. The additional restrictions will destroy our sector if they go ahead as proposed.”
It was unclear whether Mr Johnson will face a revolt from Tory backbenchers in the Covid Recovery Group, 70 of whom signed a letter over the weekend calling on him to provide an assessment impact for any new restrictions.
The group’s chair, former chief whip Mark Harper, said many MPs would “hold their judgement” on the measures until Thursday’s announcement of which areas will be allocated to which tiers.
A major rebellion could leave the PM reliant on Labour votes, though leader Sir Keir Starmer held back from guaranteeing the party would back the new plan in a vote in the Commons early next week, saying that it contained “huge gaps … huge uncertainties and huge risks”.
Mr Johnson said that all tier allocations will be reviewed every 14 days, and announced an additional £900m in funding for councils subject to tighter controls.