London, most of Essex and parts of Hertfordshire will move into England’s highest tier of Covid restrictions, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.
The areas join tier three at 00:01 GMT on Wednesday, meaning some 34 million people will face the toughest rules.
A new variant of coronavirus has been identified that “may be associated” with the faster spread in southern England, Mr Hancock added.
Pubs and restaurants in tier three must close except for takeaway and delivery. Also under the rules, sports fans cannot attend events in stadiums, and indoor entertainment venues – such as theatres, bowling alleys and cinemas – must remain shut.
The health secretary told a Downing Street briefing that action had to be taken immediately – before the next scheduled review of England’s three-tier system on Wednesday – to slow “sharp, exponential rises” in infection, adding that in some areas the virus was doubling around every seven days.
Speaking alongside Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and Prof Kevin Fenton, London regional director for Public Health England, Mr Hancock warned that hospitals across the capital, Essex and Kent were already “under pressure”.
He described the rise in transmission and the new variant as “a salutary warning for the whole country”.