Millions of people across the UK are preparing for tougher coronavirus restrictions amid growing concern about the rising number of cases.
Some 38 million people in England will be subject to the nation’s strictest measures – tier three – from Saturday.
Northern Ireland will
begin a six-week lockdown from 26 December, with non-essential shops having to close.
Wales had already announced a lockdown from 28 December which will be reviewed every three weeks and has no end date.
In Scotland, the government has warned that tougher restrictions – including a potential lockdown – after the festive period cannot be ruled out.
When asked about the prospect of a national lockdown in England, government minister Nick Gibb said the tier system was “very effective” but nothing was ruled out.
The decision by all four UK nations to relax restrictions and allow more mixing for five days over Christmas has prompted concern that it will fuel a further surge in case numbers, with medical professionals warning the NHS is already under significant pressure.
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said relaxing the measures would “undoubtedly lead to more cases, more pressure on NHS and care services, and more deaths”.
Dr Martin Kelly, a consultant respiratory physician in Londonderry, said there had been a significant increase in Covid patients being admitted to hospital in the last couple of weeks.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Right in the mouth of Christmas we’re seeing a significant further surge in numbers which is already putting the service under significant pressure.”
Dr Nick Lyons, a health board medical director in south Wales, said he recognised a similar picture in his region, which has had to cancel non-urgent procedures.
He told Today the intensive care units “were basically full with Covid patients” while the field hospital was “roughly at half its total capacity”.
Official figures show infection rates went up in every region of England last week, apart from Yorkshire and the Humber.
From 00:01 GMT on Saturday, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Hertfordshire will move up a tier, along with parts of Surrey, East Sussex, Cambridgeshire and Hampshire.
London had the highest rate, at 319.3 cases per 100,000 people in the week to December 13, up from 199.9 in the previous week. The rate went from 152.9 to 249.1 in eastern England, and from 167.6 to 238.7 in the South East.
London and parts of Hertfordshire and Essex had already been placed under the top level of restrictions earlier in the week.
Bristol and North Somerset will move from tier three to tier two, and Herefordshire will move from tier two into tier one.
Much of the Midlands, north-west and north-east England, which are already in tier three, will remain there. It means two-thirds of England’s population will be in tier three from Saturday.
The new six-week lockdown in Northern Ireland will include closing non-essential shops and close-contact services such as hair salons.
The first week of the lockdown, running until 2 January, will see even tighter measures with essential shops having to close each day by 20:00 GMT.
In Wales, non-essential shops will close from the end of trading on Christmas Eve, with an alert level four lockdown starting four days later.
Scotland’s Covid levels and restrictions will be reviewed on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has advised doctors to offer patients in hospital with coronavirus a follow-up six weeks later to check for “long Covid” symptoms.
NICE says the longer-term effects can be “significant”, and has identified 28 of the most common symptoms, from breathlessness and dizziness to chest pain.
The UK recorded a further 532 coronavirus deaths on Thursday, taking the total number of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for the virus to 66,052.
A further 35,383 cases were also recorded on Thursday, up from 25,161 on the previous day.
This figure includes 11,000 positive cases from Wales that were not previously recorded in official figures due to maintenance work on Public Health Wales’ computer systems at the end of last week.
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