LONDON (REUTERS) - Large areas of England will be added to the "very high alert" Covid-19 category this weekend, placing residents under the most stringent tier of restrictions to tackle the rising number of infections.
Britain, like other countries, is struggling to tame a second wave of novel coronavirus cases and deaths, and the government finds itself having to defend a plan to relax contact restrictions for five days over Christmas.
Health minister Matt Hancock said cases in the south-east of England were up by 46 per cent in the last week, while hospital admissions were up by more than a third. In eastern England, cases were up by two-thirds, and hospital admissions by nearly half.
"It is therefore necessary to apply Tier 3 measures across a much wider area of the east and southeast of England," he told Parliament.
He said the new measures would be in force from Saturday (Dec 19); a small number of areas had their restrictions eased.
London had already been placed into Tier 3 this week after an emergency review identified a surge in infections.
From Saturday, 68 per cent of England will be in Tier 3 and 30 per cent in Tier 2. Fewer than a million people will be in Tier 1.
The main difference between the top alert levels is that bars and restaurants, must close their doors in Tier 3 and can only operate takeaway services.
There are also additional curbs on socialising in Tier 3, but workplaces and schools are told to remain open.
The government had suggested that family members could travel to visit relatives over Christmas, but is now urging people to keep their celebrations small and local.
The devolved governments of the other nations of Britain - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - each set their own public health policies, independently of London.