Third national lockdown as Covid surge leaves NHS on verge of being overwhelmed

England is set to go into a third national lockdown, Boris Johnson has announced.

The prime minister made a televised address to the nation at 8pm this evening to announce the new measures, which include the closure of primary schools, secondary schools, and colleges which will move to in person teaching from tomorrow until February half term, although nurseries will remain open.

He said exams would not go ahead as normal and there would be alternative arrangements in place.

People have been told to stay at home where possible, and will only be allowed to leave for limited exemptions such as for medical reasons or escaping domestic abuse. Clinically vulnerable people have been advised to begin shielding again.

Mr Johnson said that vulnerable children and the children of key workers would still be able to go to school, and children who receive free school meals will still be entitled to receive them.

He said the new measures were in response to a new variant of coronavirus which is 50% to 70% more transmissible and is spreading at an ‘alarming’ rate.

He said ‘it’s clear that we need to do more to bring this under control while the vaccines are rolled out.’

‘As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic,’ he said.

The Prime Minister said that in England the number of Covid patients in hospitals has increased by nearly a third in the last week to almost 27,000 – some 40% higher than the first peak in April.

On December 29 ‘more than 80,000 people tested positive for Covid across the UK’, the number of deaths is up by 20% over the last week ‘and will sadly rise further’, he said.

Parliament is set to be recalled to sit on Wednesday so MPs can debate the measures, Downing Street said earlier, but Mr Johnson said people should follow the new rules from now.

To see the full government rules, click here.

A No 10 spokesman said that the move was in response to the ‘rapidly escalating’ numbers of infections following the emergence of a new variant which is more transmissible. It was first identified in the south east of England, but has since been seen across the country and as far afield as China and the USA.

The spokesman said: ‘The spread of the new variant of Covid-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country.

‘The Prime Minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives.’

It comes as the Covid threat level is moving up to its highest level, meaning that the NHS is on the brink of being overwhelmed.

Government sources indicated that the step had been taken, after the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), which includes the UK’s four Chief Medical Officers – recommended the move up to level 5.

That red level means there is a ‘material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed’, while social distancing measures should ‘increase’ to ‘extremely strict’. The system is different to the four tiers and was set up in May amid the first wave.

Today’s new measures were announced following days of build-up to stricter rules coming in.

They mark the third national lockdown, with the first in March leading to schools and non-essential shops closing. A second lockdown in November was less stringent, with schools able to stay open.

Earlier today, Boris Johnson said there will be ‘tough tough’ weeks to come and added: ‘If you look at the numbers there’s no question we will have to take tougher measures and we will be announcing those in due course.’

He said that while the Government will do everything necessary to keep the virus under control, the public must keep their discipline.

Also today, Matt Hancock hinted at another lockdown amid spiralling Covid-19 cases and hospital admissions, with the UK today recording over 50,000 new cases for the seventh consecutive day.

The health secretary admitted the tier system is ‘no longer strong enough’ and there will be some ‘very difficult weeks ahead’.

Labour leader Keir Starmer had called for another national lockdown, saying the virus is ‘clearly out of control’ and telling the PM to act urgently instead of waiting to implement measures.

‘The Prime Minister is hinting at it, but he’s not doing it. We can’t afford that delay again,’ said the opposition leader. ‘Let’s not have the prime minister saying “I’m going to do it, but not yet”, that’s the problem he has made so many times.’

Pupils went back to primary schools today, except in some areas such as London where they were told they were not due to go back for in person teaching until at least January 18.

Secondary school pupils were also due to return in a staggered start, a week later than planned with exam pupils returning on January 11 and other year groups returning on January 18.

This was despite a warning from SAGE, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, that the R rate is unlikely to be brought below 1 with schools open, and perhaps not even if they did close.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated.

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