London and several other areas in the south-east will this week enter the toughest coronavirus restrictions in order to contain a surging number of Covid infections.
The capital along with parts of Essex and Hertfordshire will enter tier 3 at 00.01 on Wednesday. Hancock told MPs the data would now be reviewed weekly, with the next review on 23 December. All of Essex, except Tendring, and Watford, Hertsmere and Broxbourne in Hertfordshire will join London in Tier 3 restrictions.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, briefed London MPs that the capital will enter tier 3 from Wednesday, after the government’s Covid operations committee met on Monday morning to discuss new tier restrictions.
Hancock will give a statement in the Commons on Monday afternoon, where he is likely to announce other changes across England.
MPs from London, Essex, Kent and Hertfordshire were briefed on Monday morning and told that increases in infections in some areas were “off the chart”, according to sources in the meeting.
The latest data showed almost 24,000 confirmed cases in London in a week, and cases rising in every borough.
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said an announcement could be made on Monday on moving the capital into tier 3.
He told Sky News: “My understanding is that Covid-O is meeting as we speak – that’s the subcommittee of the cabinet that makes the recommendations. We will have to wait and see what the government decides – it’s a government decision, not my decision or London leaders’ decision.”
Dozens of MPs in London and nearby areas were warned about a surge in Covid cases – with some “off the chart” – on a virtual briefing with the health minister, Helen Whately, the deputy chief medical officer for England, Jenny Harries, and other officials on Monday.
One London MP on the call told the Guardian they were alarmed to hear about the rate of transmission, adding: “The tone was markedly different today. The numbers have gone up so fast, even in the last two to three days.
“Even in the last 24 hours, there were some boroughs in London where the bar was going off the chart. There was a lot of frustration on the call because it was only 45 minutes, there were a lot of MPs, a lot of questions remained unaddressed, unanswered.
“The numbers were alarming, not just in London … in neighbouring areas as well: Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Kent.”
Harries told MPs that numbers were akin to the start of the pandemic with a doubling rate of five to seven days.
Khan has issued a number of appeals to Londoners to try to help contain cases in the capital, and has also urged the government to consider closing schools.
In a letter to the prime minister on Monday, he said: “Urgent consideration must … be given to closing secondary schools, sixth form and FE colleges a few days early and keeping them closed for longer after Christmas.”
Khan said face coverings should be made mandatory in all outside spaces that were busy with Christmas shoppers, especially in central London.
The Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, Tulip Siddiq, said: “The government has to follow the science and keep the virus under control in London, but the impact of further restrictions without better support could be devastating.
“Local hospitality businesses and others affected by reduced footfall are already teetering on the brink of collapse, and prolonged tier 3 restrictions could tip them over the edge if we aren’t careful. As well as better support for businesses and workers affected, we also need a clear exit strategy from restrictions, which will require the effective rollout of mass testing across the city at pace.”
Wes Streeting, the chair of the London group of Labour MPs, said it was clear the data in the capital was concerning. “The numbers don’t lie and Londoners should follow the rules and prepare for tier 3,” he said.
Questions are also likely to be asked about the effectiveness of tier 3 restrictions on containing the virus, given the continuous rise of cases in Kent, which has been under the restrictions since the end of the last four-week lockdown.
An MP said an official on the call had conceded that neither the national lockdown nor tier 3 had made much impact on numbers in Kent. “Which begs the question, what is the purpose and the point of those restrictions if they are having minimal impact?” the MP said.