Most of England to greet 2021 under strictest virus measures

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A mask on the pavement near the entrance of a hospital on Westminster Bridge in London, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2020. Reports say that pressure on the NHS is rising and it is absolutely critical that people follow the rules and do everything they can to stop the spread, especially of the new variant of this virus that transmits so much faster.UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Wednesday the Oxford-AstraZeneca drug approval will accelerate Britain's coronavirus vaccination programme.(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

LONDON – The British government on Wednesday extended its toughest coronavirus restrictions to more than three-quarters of England’s population, saying a fast-spreading new variant of the virus has reached most of the country.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that at midnight the government's top infection-warning level, Tier 4, would be expanded beyond London and the southeast to cover large swaths of central, northern and southwest England, including the major cities of Manchester and Birmingham.

The move will severely curtail New Year's Eve celebrations in parts of England that are home to 44 million people, or 78% of the population. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the government “intensively” considered imposing a nationwide lockdown but had decided against one for now.

In England's Tier 4, most people are advised to stay home, barred from mixing with the members of other households either indoors or out, nonessential shops are shut and restaurants and bars can only offer takeout.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have implemented strong lockdown measures.

Hospitals in the worst-hit areas of London and southern England are becoming increasingly overstretched, with ambulances unable to unload patients at some hospitals where all the beds are occupied. There are more people in hospitals with COVID-19 now than at the first peak of the outbreak in April.

Britain has recorded more than 72,500 confirmed coronavirus deaths, the second-highest death toll in Europe after Italy and the sixth-highest worldwide. The country reported a record number of new confirmed cases on Tuesday, more than 53,000, and 50,023 on Wednesday.

The U.K. also reported Wednesday that another 981 people with the coronavirus had died. It was the highest daily number of deaths reported since April, although it followed a lag in reporting over the Christmas holidays.