The UK has reported a further 35,928
The spike in positive tests puts today’s figure at nearly double the 18,447 recorded last Sunday.
Official figures also revealed 326 more people have died after testing positive for the virus – more than double the 144 deaths reported this time last week.
The strain – called ‘VUI – 202012/01’ – is 70 per cent more infectious and makes up 60 per cent of London’s new cases, Boris Johnson revealed yesterday.
He also warned that the strain could increase the crucial R rate by 0.4.
Tier 4 regulations involve closing non-essential shops and travel restrictions including ‘stay at home’ order for Christmas Day itself – even though Mr Johnson insisted just days ago that five-day festive ‘bubbles’ would go ahead.
The UK has reported a further 35,928 coronavirus cases today as the mutant Covid strain causes a 94.8 per cent rise in infections
Official figures also revealed 326 more people have died after testing positive for the virus – more than double the 144 deaths reported this time last week
The extraordinary U-turn has caused outrage among families that have already made plans, booked travel and bought food for reunions, with many taking to social media to vent their fury.
The move also gave Britons just eight hours to complete their gift shopping last night ahead of Christmas Day.
Shoppers descended on London’s high streets in their droves, with pictures showing Oxford Street and Regent Street flooded with panic buyers late into the night.
But the first day of Tier 4 was a totally different story – with the jam-packed streets of yesterday evening looking nearly deserted today.
Wales was also thrust into a full lockdown from midnight last night – forcing all non-essential shops to close their doors and slashing Christmas bubbles to a single day.
Pictures today emerged of a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Pontypridd which blocked off non-essential sections of the store – including clothing and Christmas decorations – to customers.
Nicola Sturgeon said at her own press conference that a ban on cross-border travel is being upgraded – and Scotland will also see a one-day only rule on Christmas bubbles.
The move has caused chaos, with the PM facing accusations of ‘inconsistency’ after the last minute U-turn, with Tories calling for Cabinet resignations and a review of the data used to create the fourth tier.
Meanwhile the UK’s European neighbours, including Italy, Holland, Belgium, Austria and the Czech Republic have banned flights from the UK, with Germany and Ireland also considering limiting passengers.
Matt Hancock today warned that the new mutant strain of coronavirus is ‘out of control’ as he suggested draconian Tier 4 restrictions could be in place ‘until we have the vaccine rolled out’.
The Health Secretary said people in Tier 4 areas should behave as if they are infected in order to combat the new variant of the disease which spreads quicker than its predecessor.
Mr Hancock said the new strain can be caught ‘more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present’ as he confirmed areas subject to the toughest restrictions are likely to be in the top tier for the long haul.
The Cabinet minister said ‘we have got a long way to go to sort this’ and it will be ‘very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out’.
Mr Hancock told Sophy Ridge on Sky News: ‘We don’t want to do any of this but it is necessary. This has been an awful end to what has been an incredibly difficult year and on Friday when we were presented with that new scientific evidence about the new variant it was our duty to act.
‘From being presented on Friday afternoon with the strength of how easy this new variant finds it to transmit from one human to another, we acted very quickly and decisively with the announcements that the Prime Minister set out yesterday.
‘I just think everybody watching will feel this sense that we both feel of disappointment and that it is just so difficult ahead of Christmas, which everybody was really looking forward to after all the sacrifices that have been made.
‘But unfortunately this virus, the new strain, was out of control. We have got to get it under control and the way that we can do that, the only way you can do that, is by restricting social contact and essentially, especially in Tier 4 areas, everybody needs to behave as if they might well have the virus and that is the way that we can get it under control and keep people safe.’
The Health Secretary said the new variant of the disease was more easily transmitted than its predecessor which left the Government with no choice but to act.
He said: ‘We just know that this new variant you can catch it more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present.’
Mr Hancock said the increased risk posed by the new variant meant existing measures to combat the spread of the disease, like wearing face masks and social distancing, would have to be stepped up.
‘All of the different measures that we have in place, we need more of them to control the spread of the new variant than we did to control the spread of the old variant, that is the fundamental problem,’ he said.
The roll-out of coronavirus vaccines is now underway across the UK, with the Government hoping to give the jab to millions of vulnerable people by the Spring.
Mr Hancock suggested Tier 4 measures could be in place until the vaccine has been widely distributed, raising the prospect of millions of people being told to stay at home for months.
He said: ‘We have really got to get this under control and the cases in the Tier 4 areas… have absolutely rocketed in the last few days, last two weeks or so.
‘We have got a long way to go to sort this. Essentially we have got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe.’
He added: ‘I think that given how much faster this new variant spreads it is going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out.’
Public Health England warned that the new variant of coronavirus sweeping London and the South East has spread to other parts of the UK – but cases were in much smaller numbers than in the capital, Kent and parts of Essex.
Dr Susan Hopkins told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: ‘It has been detected in many other parts of the country. Every region has cases but with very small numbers.
‘It has also been detected in Wales, in Scotland, we have not had any detected in Northern Ireland.’
Dr Hopkins also said that she hoped people who had crammed onto trains out of London after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday the capital was one of the areas going into the new Tier 4 would reduce their contacts.
Dr Hopkins said: ‘I understand people’s wish to get home to their families and loved ones that they may live with on a normal day-to-day basis and wanted to get out of London last night.
‘I hope that when they go to wherever they are moving to they reduce their social contacts and don’t contact anyone outside their household for the next 10 days, as that will help minimise the risk of transmission to other parts of the country.
‘We know it’s in other parts of the country in small amounts but what we are trying to do is prevent more spread and rapid increases across the rest of the country.’
Dr Hopkins said that while the new strain had been identified in October from a sample taken in September it was not until Friday that its higher transmissibility was confirmed.
When asked on Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday why Mr Johnson was still insisting on Wednesday that it would be ‘inhuman’ to cancel Christmas, she said: ‘We did not have the modelling evidence to show that the transmissibility was increased or that the R value was increased on Wednesday.’
The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance warned on Saturday that the new variant was becoming the dominant strain, with a rapid rise in cases in recent days.
But Dr Hopkins said there was no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus was causing a disproportionate number of hospital admissions.
She said: ‘We have got no signals, so the first signals we would expect to see is in the South East where this has definitely increased over weeks now.
‘But what we know is the more cases we have in the community with this virus the more cases we are seeing in hospital. But we are not seeing a disproportionate number of people being admitted to hospital over the last two weeks and we are not seeing any increases in mortality yet.’
Dr Hopkins said there was evidence that there was evidence of people with the new variant having higher viral loads of the virus.
But she said a higher viral load did not mean people were going to get more ill, adding: ‘The illness comes from the immune response and how it reacts in your lungs – that’s where we know the illness really starts to be driven from and why people need oxygen.
‘The higher amount of the virus means that people are likely to be more infectious than they would otherwise be and this means we need to reiterate the social distancing measures.’
Dr Hopkins said that until further studies are carried out there cannot be certainty the vaccine will be effective against the new Covid-19 variant.
She added: ‘We won’t know for definite until we have further studies.
‘The vaccine induces a strong, multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response is going to be completely gone.’
Wales’ health minister Vaughan Gething said today the ‘mutant’ strain of coronavirus is also a factor in the rapid rise of cases in Wales.
He told BBC News On Sunday that the new variant was ‘effectively seeded’ across the country. He also said that the decision to place the country immediately into lockdown ahead of Christmas was due to the information that the new strain was leading to faster spread of the virus.
Mr Gething added: ‘Unfortunately our rates are around about 600 per 100,000, they are very high across the country with large concentrations in the south of Wales but also north-east Wales has been particularly affected as well.
‘This has been a very difficult decision for many people here in Wales, I know people have been frustrated and there are some people who are angry but we are having to make these choices to try to keep people safe.
‘We have already moved ahead of the rest of the UK in changing our rules about Christmas mixing when new information about the new variant, and the fact it does appear to be generating a much more rapid growth of the virus, really does mean that we need to act.’
When asked if the new variant was in Wales as well as the London and parts of the south east and east of England, Mr Gething said: ‘I’m afraid the new variant is here in Wales as well.
‘The undoubtable truth is this new variant is effectively seeded across the country, so acting now takes account of the fact that this new variant is undoubtedly a factor, we can’t say how much of a factor, in the rapid growth in cases across south Wales despite the measures we have taken.’