Boris Johnson has ordered a third lockdown in England after medics warned the NHS could be “overwhelmed” in 21 days without action.
Mr Johnson’s decision came just hours after Nicola Sturgeon announced Scotland would also go into lockdown for the rest of January, with a legal requirement to stay at home and schools closed to most pupils until February.
In a hastily arranged televised address, Mr Johnson said the new variant of coronavirus – which is 50% to 70% more transmissible – was spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” manner.
“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 latest figures showed a further 407 people have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Monday and there were a record 58,784 more lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
The prime minister told the nation that the harshest level of coronavirus restrictions would come back into force tonight and remain in place south of the border until mid-February.
In reality, restrictions are unlikely to be eased until around 13 million people aged over 70 or classed as clinically extremely vulnerable have received the vaccine and been given enough time to be protected – a period of about two to three weeks after getting the jab.
Strong stay-at-home messaging will return, with leaving only permitted for limited exceptions such as shopping for necessities including food and medicine.
The public were told to work from home unless it is impossible to do so, such as for critical workers and those in the construction industry.
Exercise will be permitted with household or support bubble members or with one other person from another household, but is advised to be limited to only once per day and carried out locally.
The remaining exceptions to going outside are to seek medical help, provide assistance to a vulnerable person, to receive medical care or to flee a threat of harm.
"The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet. But I really do believe that we are entering the last phase of the struggle. With every jab we are tilting the odds against Covid and in favour of the British people." Prime Minister @BorisJohnson. Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives🇬🇧
— Andrew Bowie MP (@AndrewBowie_MP) January 4, 2021
Non-essential shops will have to close, but early years settings such as nurseries and childminders are allowed to remain open and existing childcare bubbles can stay in place.
Exams will again face disruption as schools close to all those other than for the children of key workers and vulnerable children until after the February half-term. University students will not be allowed to return to their institutions.
Restaurants and other hospitality venues can continue delivery or takeaway services but will no longer be permitted to serve alcohol.
Outdoor gyms, tennis courts and golf courses must close and outdoor team sports will be prohibited.
But Premier League football and other elite sports with testing regimes and bubbles in place will be allowed to continue.
The clinically vulnerable who were previously told to shield should stay at home and only leave for medical appointments and exercise.
The regulations are expected to be laid before Parliament on Tuesday, with MPs retrospectively being given a vote after they are recalled early from the Christmas break on Wednesday.
The move came after the UK’s four chief medical officers said the UK alert level should increase to level five “in light of the most recent data”.
In a statement, they said: “We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
Mr Johnson, speaking on Monday evening, said: “I want to say to everyone right across the United Kingdom that I know how tough this is, I know how frustrated you are, I know that you have had more than enough of government guidance about defeating this virus.
“But now more than ever, we must pull together.
“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet but I really do believe that we are entering the last phase of the struggle.
“Because with every jab that goes into our arms, we are tilting the odds against Covid and in favour of the British people.
“And, thanks to the miracle of science, not only is the end in sight – we know exactly how we will get there.
“But for now, I am afraid, you must once again stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.”