UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is ordering millions more people to live under the strictest COVID-19 restrictions from Thursday to counter a new variant of the virus

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Boris Johnson with pursed lips and worried eyes speaks at a podium.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is ordering millions more people to live under the strictest COVID-19 restrictions from Thursday to counter a new variant of the virus that is spreading at a “sheer pace” across the country.

Key points:

  • Restrictions announced by Boris Johnson will affect more than 44 million people
  • The new measures come as cases continue to surge across the country
  • The UK reported a further 981 deaths on Wednesday

Case numbers have risen sharply in Britain in the past two weeks, driven in part by a new strain that is up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original.

The Government, which reported another 981 deaths from the virus in the past 24 hours, said three quarters of England’s population would be in the top tier of restrictions from Thursday.

The restrictions will affect an area covering 44.1 million people.

In those areas, hospitality venues and non-essential shops are closed and households cannot mix.

“We must face the reality that the sheer pace of the spread of this new variant requires us now to take even tougher action in some areas,” Mr Johnson said.

He urged people to stay at home on Thursday night and avoid any public New Year’s Eve celebrations.

The Government also said secondary schools would delay and stagger their reopening after the Christmas break to enable testing to be implemented, while some primary schools in the worst-hit areas will not open to all students.

The UK has suffered one of the highest death tolls in Europe and the deepest economic contraction from the pandemic.

Britain's Health Secretary Matt Hancock walks wearing a mask reading "Protect the NHS".

Health Secretary Matt Hancock says the country’s hospitals are under pressure.(AP: Alberto Pezzali)

In Scotland, large areas are under tough lockdowns where pubs, restaurants and cafes must close, while schools will open later than expected.

Northern Ireland and Wales have their own similar, tough restrictions.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the country’s hospitals were coming under very significant pressure, with the number of people battling the virus on wards or intensive care as high as it was during the first wave.

“Unfortunately, this new variant is now spreading across most of England and cases are doubling fast,” he told parliament.

“It is therefore necessary to apply Tier 4 to a wider area.”

London and surrounding areas were put into the newly created Tier 4 on December 19.

The Midlands, the north east, parts of the north west and parts of the south west will join them on Thursday.

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