Harsh Covid restrictions will remain until April despite stunning vaccine breakthrough

Tough coronavirus curbs will last at least until Easter despite another stunning vaccine breakthrough yesterday.

Oxford University confirmed its cheap, easy to store and simple to deliver jab had proved ‘highly effective’ in preventing illness.

It could be approved by regulators in as little as a fortnight and start to be administered next month. Britain has ordered 100million doses, with almost 20million due by Christmas.

Boris Johnson praised the breakthrough, saying all vulnerable Britons could be vaccinated by Easter, allowing a gradual return to normality through spring. But he also warned against ‘over-optimism’, saying there were ‘hard months ahead’ until stringent restrictions could be eased.

Setting out plans for a tougher tier system to replace the lockdown that ends on December 2, he said onerous rules would have to remain in place until at least March 31.

Business leaders said the new system was ‘purgatory’ for firms already reeling from two national shutdowns.

London is likely to be in Tier Three, the highest level, following a rise in cases. 

Whitehall sources suggested only very few, mostly rural, areas would be in Tier One – the only level where indoor socialising with other households is allowed.

Boris Johnson discussing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine’s successful trial and the new three-tier system for England at a No 10 briefing on Monday night

The onerous tiered system which the Prime Minister has said will remain in place until March 31

The onerous tiered system which the Prime Minister has said will remain in place until March 31

‘Tis the season… ‘To be jolly careful’

By Larisa Brown, Political Correspondent 

Boris Johnson called for restraint over the festive season last night as he heralded a brief Christmas respite from coronavirus restrictions.

‘This is not the moment to let the virus rip for the sake of Christmas parties,’ the Prime Minister said at the No 10 press briefing.

‘It is the season to be jolly but it is also the season to be jolly careful, especially with elderly relatives.’

Ministers are likely to confirm this week that up to three households will be allowed to mix over a five-day period at Christmas.

Mr Johnson told the Commons yesterday: ‘I can’t say Christmas will be normal this year… We all want some kind of Christmas – we need it, we certainly feel we deserve it.

‘But what we don’t want is to throw caution to the winds and allow the virus to flare up again, forcing us all back into lockdown in January.’

He said he was working with the devolved administrations on a special, time-limited Christmas indulgence.

‘But this virus is obviously not going to grant us a Christmas truce,’ he added. ‘Families will need to make a careful judgment about the risk of visiting elderly relatives.’

The Prime Minister said the Government would be publishing guidance for the extremely vulnerable on how to manage risks in each tier, as well as over Christmas.

Tory MPs questioned the Christmas rules, with former minister Sir Desmond Swayne comparing Mr Johnson to Oliver Cromwell.

In June 1647, Christmas was abolished by Parliament and soldiers were sent to break up church services and festivals. Traditional decorations like holly and ivy were banned and singing carols was outlawed.

As lord protector from December 1653 until his death in September 1658, Cromwell supported the enforcement of these measures.

Sir Desmond said: ‘The last ruler that told us how we may or may not celebrate Christmas was Oliver Cromwell. It didn’t end well, did it?’

Mr Johnson said he shared Sir Desmond’s ‘fundamental libertarian yearnings’, adding that ‘I love Christmas, I love a big get-together’.

But he warned: ‘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, and they want a cautious and balanced approach and that’s what we will deliver for the whole UK.’

The Prime Minister’s Covid-19 winter plan document warns it will be ‘particularly important to be cautious early in the new year’.

It says: ‘Christmas will likely lead to an increase in transmission and, historically, the period after Christmas is when the NHS sees the greatest pressure on services such as A&E and the highest rates of bed occupancy.’ 

Details will be announced on Thursday. The continued sweeping restrictions will face significant opposition from many in business, especially hospitality.

Ministers are already braced for Rishi Sunak to unveil shocking figures tomorrow on the impact of the pandemic. A Treasury source said the forecasts in the Chancellor’s comprehensive spending review would be ‘really, really bad’.

On a pivotal day in the virus crisis:

  • Mr Johnson appealed to families not to abuse plans for a Christmas relaxation of the rules, saying it would be a ‘season to be jolly careful’, particularly with the elderly;
  • He ruled out a compulsory vaccination programme, but urged all those eligible to take advantage;
  • Sport was given a reprieve, with plans to allow limited numbers of fans back into stadiums;
  • New fast turnaround tests will enable relatives to hug their loved ones in care homes this winter;
  • Tory MPs warned of a Commons revolt next week after ministers refused to publish the likely economic impact of Covid restrictions;
  • The system of ‘support bubbles’ was opened up to more groups, including parents of babies;
  • Mass testing could be used to award ‘freedom passes’ to the Covid-free, allowing them to drop social distancing;
  • Travel quarantine will be reduced to five days from December 15 in a major victory for the Daily Mail’s campaign to Get Britain Flying Again;
  • The 10pm pub curfew has been dropped, with drinkers to be given an hour to leave after last orders at 10pm;
  • Scientific advisers warned that an even tougher ‘Tier Four’ might be needed this winter to keep the virus in check;
  • Councils will be given powers to enforce the ‘immediate closure’ of businesses that flout the law;
  • Mr Johnson defended the test and trace system, as new figures revealed the cost is on course to hit £22billion.

The post-lockdown system was set out yesterday in a 56-page ‘Covid Winter Plan’ outlining the three tiers.

The new rules will last until at least March 31 – more than a year after the first lockdown began.

Although the ‘stay at home message’ of the last month will be dropped, people will be told to minimise travel and work from home where possible until April.

Business leaders welcomed the decision to allow shops to reopen in the run-up to Christmas. Gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons will also be allowed to trade in all three tiers, and grassroots sport will be allowed to resume.

But there was misery for the hospitality sector, which faces crippling restrictions over the vital Christmas period and beyond. Before the lockdown, around half the country was in Tier One. But the PM said ‘many more places will be in higher tiers’ this time.

Indoor mixing will be banned in Tier Two and above, including in pubs and restaurants. In Tier Two, hospitality venues will be allowed to serve alcohol only with a ‘substantial meal’.

In Tier Three, pubs and restaurants will be permitted to offer takeaway services only. Indoor entertainment, including cinemas, bowling alleys and soft play centres, will have to close.

Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said the new measures would ‘destroy our sector’.

Jonathan Neame, chief executive of the Shepherd Neame pub group, said the measures would be ‘devastating’.

He added: ‘It is absolutely rotten that they have singled out hospitality in this way. It makes me sick.’ Acting CBI chief Josh Hardie said: ‘Positive news of vaccines offers a ray of light for 2021.

‘But the next few weeks and months will for many feel like purgatory – stuck in limbo between a national lockdown and a new normal.’ The Prime Minister said he was very sorry for the economic hardship caused but insisted it was unavoidable given the need to prevent a third wave of coronavirus.

Lauding the Oxford breakthrough, he told a Downing Street press conference: ‘We can hear the drumming hooves of the cavalry coming over the brow of the hill.’ 

Purgatory till Easter: London could be stuck in the toughest tier as the PM unveils a new system to stave off a winter coronavirus surge 

By Jason Groves, Political Editor for The Daily Mail 

England faces at least four more months of Covid restrictions, Boris Johnson said last night, amid fears London could be placed in the new toughest Tier Three.

As he warned of a ‘hard winter’ ahead, the Prime Minister urged the country to steel itself for ‘one final push to the spring’ – when developments in vaccines and testing ‘should reduce the need for the restrictions we have endured in 2020’.

He confirmed that the month-long second lockdown will end on December 2.

But Mr Johnson told MPs it would be replaced in England with a ‘tougher’ system of tiered restrictions than the one in place last month. And it will remain in place until March 31 – just before Easter and more than a year after the first lockdown began.

A young woman enjoying a double pint at a pub in Glasgow after beer gardens were permitted to open up in July

A young woman enjoying a double pint at a pub in Glasgow after beer gardens were permitted to open up in July

Calls for FOURTH tier are ruled out 

By Kate Pickles, Health Correspondent 

A fourth tier of Covid restrictions called for by scientific advisers has been ruled out, official documents suggest.

Ministers were told the move might be required in areas where Tier Three restrictions were not causing cases to fall sufficiently.

However the three-tier system will return when lockdown ends on December 2 – albeit with tougher curbs.

The Sage scientific advisory panel said Tier One measures alone were ‘not enough to prevent the epidemic from growing rapidly’.

In a meeting on November 12 it concluded that some models showed a modest 10 per cent reduction in the reproduction number – the R value – when moving from Tier One to Two.

The document added: ‘This suggests that Tier Two is the minimum intervention required to maintain any degree of control on transmission, though this would not be the case in all places and there is significant uncertainty. In most cases moving from Tier One to Tier Two would slow growth rather than reverse it.’

Sage experts said it was unclear whether Tier Three restrictions alone would be sufficient at a regional or national level to bring R below 1.

A Sage sub-group statement on November 11 suggested that a higher tier might be required in badly affected areas.

It read: ‘There is a great deal of uncertainty about the effect of tiers, particularly Tier Three. Test and trace, including mass testing, is most effective when prevalence is low. Even the most effective test and trace system will have little impact when caseloads are high.

‘Given that the impact of tiers will vary depending on the characteristics of different areas, a Tier Four needs to be considered for those parts of the country where Tier Three is not able to shrink the epidemic.

‘This is particularly important in the run-up to the winter festive period if relaxation of measures is under consideration. Keeping incidence flat or decreasing is crucial.’ 

Whitehall sources last night warned that only ‘very few’ areas of England would be placed in Tier One, the only level where indoor socialising is allowed. Sources refused to rule out placing London in Tier Three following a recent rise in cases.

Downing Street said people in all three tiers would be asked to work from home ‘where possible’ until at least April.

And while the formal advice to stay at home will be dropped next week, even those living in Tier One areas will be asked to ‘minimise travel’. Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons will be allowed to reopen in all three tiers.

Outdoor sport can also resume next week, and fans will be allowed to return to sports stadiums in limited numbers. But there was misery for the hospitality sector which faces months of crippling restrictions. In Tier Two, pubs and restaurants will only be permitted to serve alcohol to those ordering a ‘substantial meal’.

In Tier Three, pubs and restaurants will be closed for all but takeaways.

Local councils will be given powers to order the ‘immediate closure’ of firms caught flouting the rules. Businesses will also face new fines if they fail to comply immediately with council orders to implement measures to slow the spread of the virus.

In a sign of the long haul ahead, the Government expanded the system of ‘support bubbles’ to include other groups vulnerable to isolation, including families with babies aged under one.

Addressing the Commons via video link from his self-isolation in No 10, Mr Johnson said ministers could not allow the virus to ‘flare up’ again before the ‘scientific cavalry’ arrives in the spring.

He said breakthroughs on vaccines and testing meant that ‘for the first time since this wretched virus took hold, we can see a route out of the pandemic’.

But he added: ‘Without sensible precautions, we would risk the virus escalating into a winter or New Year surge.’ Details of which areas will be placed in which tiers will be set out on Thursday.

In a shot across the Government’s bows, the Tories’ London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey told businesses in the capital that Tier Three would be ‘a disaster’.

Tory MPs also warned that the PM would face a revolt when Parliament is asked to vote on the measures next week.

Despite the tougher measures, the Government’s advisers warned they might not go far enough and a ‘Tier Four’ may be required.

The British Retail Consortium said allowing shops to reopen in the run up to Christmas would ‘help to preserve jobs and the economy’. But Kate Nicholls, of trade body UK Hospitality, said of the restrictions on pubs and restaurants: ‘They are killing Christmas and beyond for many businesses and their customers.’

Gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons will also be allowed to trade in all three tiers, and grassroots sport will be allowed to resume (stock photo)

Gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons will also be allowed to trade in all three tiers, and grassroots sport will be allowed to resume (stock photo)

Regions get no say in rankings 

Communities will not be consulted on which Covid tier they will be placed in – and will have no right of appeal.

The Government will set out a map on Thursday detailing which areas will go into each of the three new tiers of restrictions.

The process, which could decide the fate of some businesses, will be overseen by Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the chief medical officer Chris Whitty.

Downing Street said decisions would be based on five key factors – an analysis of cases across all age groups; the number of cases among those aged over 60; the rate at which local cases are increasing or falling; the number of positive tests per 100,000 people; and the ‘current and projected’ pressures on the local NHS. However, no economic factors will be taken into account in the decision.

And No 10 did not publish any benchmarks setting out what level of cases would correspond with each tier.

The system will be reviewed every 14 days to assess whether regions remain in the correct tier.

But, unlike the previous tier system, local communities will not be consulted on which restrictions should apply locally.

The decision follows a stand-off between ministers and the mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham last month over whether to place the region into Tier Three.

Downing Street confirmed that communities will have no right of appeal. 

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