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Covid: Millions more braced for tougher rules in England

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Millions more people in England are to be placed under the toughest tier four coronavirus restrictions as case numbers continue to rise.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock will set out the details of which areas will change in a Commons statement later.

Infection rates in lower tier areas of England have risen rapidly in the last seven days, government data shows.

Tier four rules include a “stay at home” order, and mean businesses such as hairdressers and gyms must close.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Matt Hancock said: “It is clear as we have seen from the data in the last few days that the number of infections is going up – that’s unfortunately not just happening in the London and the South East as it was in the last few weeks but it’s starting to happen elsewhere in the country,” he said.

The new variant “has made suppressing the virus much harder”, he said, adding the government doesn’t “take these tiering decisions lightly”.

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Asked whether the government was considering a national lockdown, Mr Hancock said “we introduced the tier system for a reason, because not everywhere needs the same level of restrictions”.

The West Midlands and Hartlepool are among the areas that could be affected.

Parts of the East Midlands, such as Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, as well as all areas of the West Midlands metropolitan county are other areas which could move into tier four.

And it is thought a handful of areas in Lancashire – Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Pendle and Ribble Valley – could be upgraded from tier three.

There may also be further curbs for areas already in the highest tier amid concerns tier four rules are not enough to stop the fast-spreading new virus variant.

It comes as the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved for use in the UK.

On Tuesday, 53,135 new Covid cases were recorded in the UK – the highest single day rise since mass testing began – as well as 414 more deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

In other developments:

Around 40% of people in England, including London, parts of the East of England and much of the South East, are currently under tier four rules.

It requires non-essential shops, beauty salons and hairdressers to close, and limits people to meeting in a public outdoor place with their household, or one other person.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is reportedly considering how best to reopen England’s secondary schools as government advisers said keeping them closed could ease pressure on the NHS.

Infectious diseases expert Prof Neil Ferguson has said that while “nobody wants to keep schools shut” it may be the only alternative “to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations” – which are now at record levels in England and Wales.

He said that because the new virus variant, initially discovered in Kent, appears to be much more transmissible, it is possible closing schools may not be enough to stop the spread.

Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Clearly we want to protect education as much as possible. But the new variant does make it much easier for this disease to transmit. So we are going to protect education as much as we can.”

The education secretary would be setting out his proposals later today, he said.

Another adviser, Prof Andrew Hayward, said a staggered return to classrooms may be appropriate if schools reopen and that “we’re going to have to have increased, strict restrictions in other areas of society to pay for that”.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the government should confirm its plan for schools and colleges, with just two working days before the new term begins for many on Monday.

A no 10 spokesman said the government was “still planning for a staggered opening” of secondary schools but “we obviously keep all measures under constant review”.

Preliminary research by Public Health England has found no evidence the new variant is more able to infect children than other variants, BBC health correspondent Nick Triggle said.

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