Millions more people in England are expected be placed under stay-at-home orders from New Year’s Eve, after the new variant of Covid-19 helped fuel a record rise in infections across the country.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, will announce further restrictions for large swaths of England later on Wednesday, with many areas expected to move up to the strictest tier 4 rules from Thursday morning.
It has been reported that up to two-thirds of England will begin 2021 under the “stay at home” restrictions, which include the closure of non-essential shops and strict one-to-one meeting limits outside between households.
There have been growing calls for tighter coronavirus restrictions in England as cases continue to rise and hospitals report mounting pressure. All of mainland Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are already in the tightest restrictions, meaning the closure of hospitality and non-essential retail.
The number of Covid-19 patients in English hospitals surpassed the first wave peak on Sunday, with 21,787 people in hospital with the disease on Tuesday morning and numbers expected to rise further as cases climb.
On Tuesday, cases reached a new record high, with 53,135 reported in the UK including 47,164 in England. The Covid variant, which was identified earlier this month, now accounts for a majority of all new cases, Hancock said on Wednesday.
Nearly 24 million people in England are under tier 4 restrictions, all in London, the south-east and east of the country. However, many more areas are expected to be placed in the same measures from Thursday, potentially including the Midlands, which has the highest infection rate outside the tier 4 areas, and where hospitals are under increasing strain.
Ian Brookfield, the leader of Wolverhampton council, said he suspected all of the West Midlands would go into tier 4 while Mike Bird, the leader of Walsall council, added: “It is highly unlikely we will stay in tier 3 with the amount of cases rising nationally.”
The latest government data shows Eden, a district in the far east of Cumbria, has the highest rates in the north of England, with 510 cases per 100,000 people. It is a mixed picture across Cumbria: Copeland, on the west coast, has just 79 cases per 100,000.
Stewart Young, the Labour leader of Cumbria county council, said the Lake District had been inundated with visitors from nearby tier 3 areas, contrary to government guidance, and that he believed it was time for a national lockdown.
“We came out on the 2nd December with the new tier system because elements within the Conservatives didn’t support a national lockdown,” he told the Guardian.
“I’m talking to you from Carlisle, eight or nine miles from the Scottish border, where there is a national lockdown. We are surrounded by tier 3 areas in England … It’s very difficult to treat different parts of the county differently, if only because it’s difficult to tell when you have crossed from one district to another.”
Hartlepool, in north-east England, also has one of the highest rates in the north of the country. Shane Moore, the council’s leader, said it would be a “complete kneejerk overreaction” from the government if the town and surrounding area was placed in tier 4 as it had only seen a “slow and steady increase” in cases since Christmas.
Hancock hinted earlier on Wednesday that the toughest restrictions would be expanded. He told BBC Breakfast: “With this new variant growing rapidly – and it’s now the majority of new cases – it is very important that we keep people safe and that we protect the NHS which, as you know, is under significant pressure.”