Boris Johnson held out the prospect of a third national lockdown in England as cases continued to surge and pressure intensified on hospitals.
The Prime Minister said he hoped a further shutdown could be avoided but acknowledged that infection rates were climbing ahead of the planned five-day relaxation for Christmas.
Northern Ireland and Wales are going into lockdown after Christmas, while the Scottish health minister said a similar action “remains on the table”.
Scientists and senior doctors have warned that the surge in hospital admissions, particularly in South East England, ahead of the festive relaxation means a third lockdown will be necessary to stop the NHS becoming overwhelmed in January.
‘Infection rates have increased’
Speaking during a visit to Greater Manchester, Mr Johnson was asked whether England would follow Northern Ireland in imposing stringent restrictions after the festive period.
He said: “We’re hoping very much that we will be able to avoid anything like that. But the reality is that the rates of infection have increased very much in the last few weeks.”
The schools minister, Nick Gibb, also said nothing would be ruled out.
Scientists have warned that the three-tier system in England may need to be strengthened in the wake of Christmas, depending on how many people plan to ignore government guidance not to mix for too long or stay overnight at each other’s homes.
Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of Sage told Sky News: “At the moment it doesn’t look like the tier system is holding the epidemic wave back, unfortunately.
“So I think we are going to have to look at these measures and perhaps tighten them up, we really will. It’s a horrible thing to have to say but we are in quite a difficult position.”
Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said there were “disturbing trends” in case numbers and hospital admissions, including in the South and East of England, and that a third lockdown may have to be tougher than the one in November.
He said he was more concerned with what the country would face in early January, telling Radio 4’s World At One that there was “very little headroom”.
Prof Ferguson added: “The concern I have right now is that… [in] the East of England, for instance, case numbers were rising during the last lockdown, so there may be a need for additional controls beyond even what were in place then.”
Northern Ireland goes into a tough six-week lockdown on Boxing Day, while Wales imposes a lockdown on 28 December.