Third national lockdown was considered by ministers amid 'grim and depressing' coronavirus rise

Three quarters of the country face living under the strictest of coronavirus rules from New Year's Eve as Boris Johnson warned it may be Easter before some measures are lifted.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock today announced swathes of area of England would be put into Tier 4 restrictions, akin to rules seen in national lockdowns, covering 78 per cent of the country.

While York and North Yorkshire will join the rest of the region in Tier 3, where all household mixing is banned both in and outdoors.

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No areas are now in Tier 2, where outdoor mixing of households is allowed, and only the Isles of Scilly are in Tier 1.

Boris Johnson speaks from Downing Street. Photo: PA

Another national lockdown was considered by ministers, Mr Johnson said - and he did not rule out further action as measures remained under review.

He said: “I’m not going to hide it from you – that obviously was an option we considered intensively, but on the whole we thought given the uncertainties we still face, the impact of the Tier 4 … we thought it right to continue with the tiering, particularly since you still have quite a regional differentiation in the way people are experiencing.”

He said tiering seemed the “fairest way” but measures were constantly reviewed.

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Mr Johnson said more people would now be given the first dose o the vaccine to provide protection to a greater number of people with available supplies, with the second dose being given after 12 weeks rather than four. And he said that while it was “very frustrating we’re in a position where we’ve got a new strain of the virus surging in the UK” but he was “also filled with hope by the arrival of this new British-made vaccine”.

He said: “It really is potentially a real cause of optimism around the world, this AstraZeneca vaccine because it can be delivered at room temperature, doesn’t have the logistical challenges of other vaccines which need to be kept refrigerated at -70c.

“I think it can get to places that can’t currently be reached and offers real, real hope across the world in fighting this pandemic.”

However the Government said a further 981 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of today, bringing the UK total to 72,548.

This is the highest daily figure reported since April 24, when 1,010 deaths were reported, but there is likely to be a lag in reporting deaths over the Christmas period.

In Yorkshire’s hospitals, 42 deaths were recorded today, bringing the region’s total to 5,902.

When asked how long some areas could be under Tier 4 restrictions earlier in the day, Mr Johnson said: “I think [Chief Medical Officer for England] Chris Whitty set a sort of terminus of April 5, Easter, where he thought things would be much, much, much better.”

Pushed for an answer he said he would not give a deadline but added: “You’ve heard what I said about April, that’s the terminus anti quem [latest possible date].”

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam said: “Unfortunately it is a pretty grim and depressing picture at the moment.”

He added that the NHS had yet to see the impact of mixing during the festive period.

“The situation in the UK is precarious in many parts already, the South East and London,” he said.

“It is almost certainly true that the NHS has not yet seen the impact of the infections that will have occurred during mixing on Christmas Day and that is also unfortunately rather sobering.”

Prof Van Tam added that members of the public had “just got to play your part from bringing us back from this very dangerous situation”.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced hundreds of thousands of pupils will not return to schools and colleges as planned.

Mr Williamson said students in exam years will return to secondary schools a week later than planned, from January 11. But other secondary and college students will go back full-time on January 18, he told Parliament. And primary schools in areas where infection rates are the highest will not reopen for face-to-face teaching to all pupils as planned next week.

Shadow further education and universities minister and Hull West and Hessle MP Emma Hardy said it was a “shambles” that a list of schools had not been provided alongside the Education Secretary’s statement.

A list of the areas was later published and featured London, Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire.