Boris Johnson calls emergency Cabinet meeting amid third lockdown fears

19 December 2020, 12:49 | Updated: 19 December 2020, 14:09

Boris Johnson is holding an emergency Cabinet meeting this afternoon
Boris Johnson is holding an emergency Cabinet meeting this afternoon. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

Boris Johnson is holding an emergency Cabinet meeting this afternoon amid fears England could be plunged into a third national lockdown over spiralling Covid-19 cases.

The Prime Minister will hold a Downing Street press conference later today alongside Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty.

Yesterday Mr Johnson refused to rule out the possibility of a third lockdown, instead saying he "hopes" to avoid one.

Speaking during a visit to Greater Manchester, Mr Johnson said the rates of infection have increased "very much" in the past few weeks.

The move comes amid reports that the Prime Minister could order new travel restrictions for South East England in an attempt to stop it spreading to the rest of the country.

Professor Whitty said the UK had now informed the World Health Organisation that it had concluded the mutant strain could spread more quickly.

"As announced on Monday, the UK has identified a new variant of Covid-19 through Public Health England's genomic surveillance," he said in a statement.

"As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.

"We have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding.

"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.

"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 comes as ministers are reportedly considering bringing in Tier 4 restrictions, in which people would be told to stay at home with commuting banned, schools would stay shut for an extra week, and non-essential shops would be shut.

Mr Johnson has so far stuck fast to his plan to allow up to three households to create a "Christmas bubble", allowing them to socialise indoors together for five days.

Wales has deferred from England on the rules, with First Minister Mark Drakeford announcing his latest guidance - which restricts households meeting to two between 23-27 December and brings in a strict level four lockdown from 28 December to counteract the expected spread of the virus.

Level four is the highest level of restrictions in Wales, and resembles a full lockdown similar to the spring.

Northern Ireland will also bring a six-week lockdown starting from Boxing Day.

The Scottish government has asked for people from up to three households to only meet Christmas bubbles for one day and not stay overnight.

Scotland is yet to order a full-scale lockdown after Christmas, but First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said "preventative action may be necessary" to halt the spread of the variant strain of the virus.

She tweeted: "Following a 4 nations Covid call earlier, I'll chair @scotgov Cabinet meeting this afternoon to discuss emerging evidence on new variant.

"Cases currently at lower level in Scotland than UK - but preventative action may be necessary to stop faster spreading strain taking hold."

More to follow...