The government is expected to announce new steps to control the spread of coronavirus, as the chief medical officers recommended that the UK move to the highest coronavirus alert level.
Boris Johnson is due to make a TV address on Monday evening where he is set to announce mass school closures and tight lockdown restrictions. MPs will be recalled to parliament from Wednesday.
In a joint statement, the UK’s four chief medical officers said the alert level should be moved to the maximum of five, warning that without action there was a risk of the NHS “in several areas” being overwhelmed.
They said: “Cases are rising almost everywhere, in much of the country driven by the new more transmissible variant. We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”
The news came amid soaring infection numbers and hospital admissions, many linked to a new, more easily transmissible variant of the virus.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The spread of the new variant of Covid-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country. The prime minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives. He will set those out this evening.”
Johnson was to update the country on the next steps at 8pm on Monday. The Commons, which had been put into an extended Christmas recess until next week, will return on Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters earlier on Monday, the prime minister said there was “no question” England would need tough rules, but gave no timetable.
It remains unclear what fresh measures could be introduced, but one option was expected to be moving areas under tier 3 rules into tier 4.
The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said a national lockdown “in the spirit of March” was needed, with schools closed. He said the government also needed to spell out clearly its plan to defeat the virus through vaccination with a goal of 4m vaccines a week by February.
“The virus is out of control. The tier system clearly isn’t working and we all know tougher measures are necessary,” he said.
“If we are asking the British people to be subject to tough national restrictions – and we are, because that needs to happen straight away – then the contract needs to be that the vaccine programme is rolled out as quickly as possible, 2m a week in January and double that in February. That needs to be the deal.
“It needs to be back to the spirit of March. Now you see lots of people out and about, trains that are half full. We need very strong messaging about staying at home.”
Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary, who chairs the Commons health committee, had urged immediate action, saying moves to close schools and ban all household mixing must happen “right away”.
“I know all these things will be under consideration with decisions potentially imminent,” Hunt tweeted. “My point is, in the face of exponential growth, even waiting an extra day causes many avoidable deaths, so these plans must now be urgently accelerated.”
The new measures would need to be in place for only about 12 weeks, until enough people had been vaccinated against coronavirus, Hunt said, adding: “So there is light at the end of the tunnel.”
He wrote: “To those arguing winter is always like this in the NHS: you are wrong. I faced four serious winter crises as health sec and the situation now is off-the-scale worse than any of those.
“It’s true that we often had to cancel elective care in Jan to protect emergency care, but that too is under severe pressure, with record trolley waits for the very sickest patients. Even more worryingly, fewer heart attack patients appear to be presenting in ICUs, perhaps because they are not dialling 999 when they need to.”
An inundated NHS could also mean more potentially avoidable cancer deaths as people stayed away from hospitals and GPs, Hunt said: “The No 1 lesson is countries that act early and decisively save lives and get their economies back to normal faster.
“We therefore cannot afford to wait: all schools should be closed, international travel stopped, household mixing limited and the tier system reviewed so that the highest tier really does bring down infection levels (as with the first lockdown).”
It was, Hunt added, “our moral duty” to ensure that frontline NHS staff were the first to receive the Covid vaccines.