|image via SkyNews
Boris Johnson has been holding talks with his Cabinet amid warnings from scientists over the new strain of COVID-19 and surging infections.
The prime minister hosted a cabinet call and will hold a news conference at 4pm with England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty and the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Downing Street has said.
Sky News understands the PM is expected to announce a new set of measures for London and the South East with those regions being put into a new Tier 4, with further restrictions around Christmas.
Government advisers have warned ministers they believe the new variant of COVID-19 spreads more quickly than previous strains, and that relaxations in public attitudes risk offsetting the benefits of the vaccination rollout over the course of the coming months, Sky News understands.
The new variant is believed to be fuelling the increase in coronavirus cases across the South East.
Professor Whitty said on Saturday the UK has informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the new variant coronavirus can spread more rapidly.
"There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments, although urgent work is under way to confirm this," he said in a statement.
"Given this latest development, it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission."
It came as Wales' First Minister Mark Drakeford said he would chair a meeting of his Cabinet later. He tweeted: "I attended a four-nation call earlier today to discuss serious concerns over the spread of a new Covid variant. I will chair a meeting of the @WelshGovernment Cabinet at 2pm today."
Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that she would be holding similar discussions with her Cabinet following the four-nation talks and that "preventative action may be necessary" to halt the spread of the new strain.
There is concern that the announcement of effective vaccines in recent weeks may have had a negative impact on compliance with rules, including self-isolation requirements.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), today warned the new strain is "a real cause for concern" and "acting urgently now is critical".
This is a very major concern. Why reducing community transmission is so important. The more virus circulating, under immune pressure, the more likely it is to mutate, evolve and change. https://t.co/OVq27qR1P5— Jeremy Farrar (@JeremyFarrar) December 19, 2020
He said the "impact of increased interactions over the festive period is a huge concern" amid the new variant and a surge in infections.
Up to three households are able to mix in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland between December 23 and 27, but the limit is two households in Wales.
Sir Jeremy said while the pace of progress that has been achieved on vaccines, treatments and diagnostics has been "phenomenal" and should be celebrated, he warned against "complacency", saying: "We must be realistic. This pandemic is not over. We have still not changed the fundamentals."
He added: "We may be entering a less predictable phase."
Labour called on the prime minister to set out how he intends to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which it said is "again out of control in parts of the country".
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: "This is an incredibly serious moment and people are worried. The prime minister has refused to take action to limit the virus' spread over Christmas. All he has offered so far is confusion and indecision."
The NHS in Kent announced yesterday that it was suspending non-urgent hospital procedures, saying it was treating double the number of patients it had at the peak of the first wave in April.
The move came as the latest official figures showed the R number for the UK was estimated to have risen to between 1.1 and 1.2 - which means the disease is growing again.
Huge swathes of the country - around 38 million people, 68% of the population in England - are now living under the toughest Tier 3 restrictions.
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