London's streets and stations empty in Tier 4 ghost town

Apocalyptic London: Capital’s streets and stations are empty as Tier 4 leaves city a desolate ghost town with little signs of life with four days until Christmas

  • Pictures this morning paint a bleak picture of London as the streets lie empty just days before Christmas 
  • Tube networks was near-empty at rush hour as shutters came down on shops and train stations were deserted
  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hold crisis talks with Ministers later today as he chairs Cobra committee 

Stark pictures this morning paint a bleak picture of London as the streets lie empty just days before Christmas. 

The festive season would ordinarily be in full swing with families out doing last minute shopping and colleagues finishing off their work before getting merry and toasting the year at Christmas parties.

But the Capital was desolate this morning, with just a handful of key workers on the Tube network during rush hour, while shutters were down on shops and train stations were deserted. 

Boris Johnson imposed a tough new round of restrictions on London and much of the South East on Saturday, effectively plunging more than 16million people into lockdown. 

Shoppers had descended on London’s high streets in their droves on Saturday, with pictures showing Oxford Street and Regent Street flooded with panic buyers late into the night.

But as London and the South East plunged into Tier 4 restrictions at midnight, the streets emptied as people were forced to remain in their homes.   

Christmas is now in chaos for millions after the Prime Minister’s eleventh hour U-turn; with panic at the tills amid fears of food shortages caused by Europe’s borders shutting and businesses facing ruin before the new year. 

London Bridge would usually be thronging with commuters on a Monday – but these photos taken this morning show a very different picture

Leadenhall Market in the city of London, which opens 24 hours a day, was lifeless this morning – forcing shoppers to look elsewhere for last minute food and gifts 

France imposed an inbound travel ban from 11pm last night amid the spread of the mutant Covid-19 strain which plunged London and the South East into Tier Four. Pictured, A Eurostar train is seen at a platform in St Pancras International railway station yesterday

There were just a handful of key workers passing through London Bridge this morning 

STOCK MARKETS AND STERLING TAKE HEAVY HIT OVER COVID-19 AND BREXIT FEARS 

More than £33billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within minutes of opening today as panicked investors reacted to the devastating economic threat of a toughened lockdown, the new coronavirus strain and the continued Brexit deadlock. 

Companies including British Airways owner IAG and engine maker Rolls-Royce took heavy hits, although online favourites Ocado and Just Eat Takeaway saw their shares rise. 

Sterling fell heavily against the dollar and euro, down 1.79% and 1.38% respectively. A pound was worth 1.326 dollars and 1.086 euros.

Companies being hit hardest were those most impacted by the new Tier 4 restrictions – which have seen European countries stopping travel to the UK – include airlines and travel firms such as easyJet, FirstGroup, National Express, Tui, Trainline and cruise ship operator Carnival.

Shares in those firms fell between 5% and 9% across the board.

Pubs and leisure groups took a dent, with Mitchells & Butlers, Wetherspoon’s and Cineworld down 7.7%, 6.2% and 8.7% respectively.

Retailers also felt the pinch from the new restrictions in London and the South East, with non-essential stores told to close their doors, with Mike Ashley’s Frasers Group down 8.1% and WH Smith down 8%.

But online players saw boosts in share prices, with online supermarket Ocado and Just Eat Takeaway seeing shares rise 4.3% and 3.6% respectively.

As millions of people remain in the grip of draconian Tier 4 curbs it emerged today;

  • The Food and Drink Federation warned of ‘serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies and exports’
  • Italy said the mutant strain had been detected in a traveller who recently returned to the country from the UK
  • The British Retail Consortium warned closure of France to UK traffic would create ‘difficulties’ for UK trade
  • Nicola Sturgeon said it was ‘imperative’ the UK Government sought an extension to Brexit transition period
  • Ireland has imposed a 48-hour ban on flights from Britain while ferries would be restricted to freight only
  • Heathrow Airport descended into chaos as hundreds of passengers scrambled onto the last flight to Dublin
  • Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted the new Tier 4 restrictions may have to remain in place for months
  • The UK reported a further 35,928 cases yesterday as the mutant strain caused a 94.8% rise in infections

Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons have been ordered to shut again, with residents told not to leave Tier Four.

In his embarrassing U-turn, the Prime Minister also slashed a Christmas amnesty from five days to just one and cancelled get-togethers completely in Tier Four. Three days earlier he had said it would be ‘inhuman’ to do so.  

London’s Underground was near-empty today, with many working from home after the draconian new rules came into play late on Saturday. 

Millions are already queuing at supermarkets in a bid to buy supplies this morning, amid fears of food shortages after France introduced a new coronavirus travel ban on UK lorries.

The Port of Dover closed to all freight vehicles leaving the UK for the next 48 hours after France imposed an inbound travel ban from 11pm last night amid the spread of the mutant Covid-19 strain which plunged London and the South East into Tier Four. 

Shoppers began queuing at supermarkets from 5.50am this morning as people rushed to buy groceries before Christmas amid news of potential shortages.

And Sainsbury’s warned of several popular items being unavailable over the coming days: ‘If nothing changes, we will start to see gaps over the coming days on lettuce, some salad leaves, cauliflowers, broccoli and citrus fruit – all of which are imported from the Continent at this time of year.

‘We hope the UK and French governments can come to a mutually agreeable solution that prioritises the immediate passage of produce and any other food at the ports.’

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will hold crisis talks with Ministers today as he chairs the Government’s Cobra civil contingencies committee amid warnings of ‘significant disruption’ around the Channel ports in Kent.

Kent Police implemented Operation Stack to ease congestion, while the Department for Transport said the disused Manston Airport was also being prepared as another contingency measure against the anticipated level of disruption.

Countries including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, and Bulgaria announced restrictions on UK travel following the outbreak of the new strain across South East England.

The Prime Minister has warned the new variant of coronavirus may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than previous strains and could overwhelm the NHS.

But last night one scientist demanded greater transparency over the number that shut down swathes of the UK.

Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care, expressed scepticism over the 70 per cent figure.

He said: ‘I’ve been doing this job for 25 years and I can tell you can’t establish a quantifiable number in such a short time frame.’

He added ‘every expert is saying it’s too early to draw such an inference’.

Professor Heneghan said there was no doubt this time of the year, the ‘height of the viral season’, was a difficult time for the NHS. But he said failure to put out the basis of the figures was undermining public trust.

He added: ‘I would want to have very clear evidence rather than ‘we think it’s more transmissible’ so we can see if it is or not.

‘It has massive implications, it’s causing fear and panic, but we should not be in this situation when the Government is putting out data that is unquantifiable.’

He added: ‘They are fitting the data to the evidence. They see cases rising and they are looking for evidence to explain it.’

Ahead of a meeting of the Cobra committee chaired by the Prime Minister, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said emergency measures were being put in place to cope with a backlog of lorries heading for the channel ports.

But he sought to play down the potential impact, stressing that container freight was not hit by the French ban on travellers.

The markets tumbled in response to the escalating coronavirus crisis and the looming prospect of a no-deal Brexit at the end of the transition period on December 31.

More than £33 billion was wiped off the FTSE 100 within minutes of opening, as the index dropped more than 2%, although it later recovered to a fall of around 1.4%.

Along with France, countries across the world announced restrictions on UK travel following the disclosure that the highly infectious new strain is widespread across south-east England.

Italian authorities said the mutant strain had been detected in a traveller who recently returned to the country from the UK.

French health minister Olivier Veran said it was already ‘entirely possible’ the new variant – VUI 202012/01 – was already circulating there, although tests had not detected it.

As well as affecting freight flows from Dover and the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone, the disruption will leave passengers stranded in the run-up to Christmas.

Mr Shapps attempted to calm fears about the wider impact of the French decision.

The Transport Secretary said hauliers were ‘quite used to anticipating disruption’, adding there were variations in supply ‘all the time’.

Mr Shapps said he was talking to French counterpart Jean-Baptiste Djebbari and told Sky News: ‘The absolute key is to get this resolved as soon as possible.’

It comes as millions of families face living under Tier Four restrictions for months, Matt Hancock warned.

Warning that the draconian lockdown could be extended nationwide, the Health Secretary said coronavirus was now ‘out of control’ following the emergence of a fast-spreading new variant. 

Mr Hancock acknowledged yesterday that many were angry with the Government for forcing families to cancel their Christmas plans.

But he said the new variant posed ‘an enormous challenge, until we can get the vaccine rolled out to protect people. This is what we face over the next couple of months’.

It comes as experts on Nervtag (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) warn the new strain of Covid-19 ‘does look significantly better at spreading’.

Warning Tier 4 measures could be extended, Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London, a member of Nervtag, told The Times: ‘It’s very unlikely anything less than really effective measures are going to control it.

‘My concern is people are not going to comply. It’s really important people appreciate the danger.’

The Health Secretary suggested other parts of the country would also be plunged into Tier Four if a significant number of cases of the mutant virus emerged.

One senior Conservative MP called for Mr Hancock to resign over the shambolic handling of the Christmas rules.

And furious Tories demanded a recall of Parliament to debate and vote on the changes to pandemic laws, which were made unilaterally by Mr Hancock in the early hours of yesterday.

Covid cases hit a daily record of 35,928 yesterday – almost double the previous week. There were also 326 deaths, up from 144 a week earlier.

Tier Four until EASTER: ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson warns draconian Tier Four measures may be needed for months after Matt Hancock hints millions more could be plunged into lockdown with Covid now ‘out of control’ 

By Stephen Matthews Health Editor for MailOnline and Jason Groves Political Editor for the Daily Mail 

Millions of families face living under draconian Tier Four restrictions until Easter, according to the scientist whose grim modelling spooked No10 into sending Britain into its first lockdown back in March.

‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson, an Imperial College London epidemiologist who quit his role as a Government adviser after breaking rules to see his married lover, today claimed the harshest curbs could ‘possibly’ have to stay until the spring and admitted Britain was now in a race to vaccinate people.

He warned Britain’s situation was ‘not looking optimistic right now’. It comes after Matt Hancock yesterday warned the Tier Four restrictions could be extended nationwide, after the Health Secretary said the virus was now ‘out of control’ following the emergence of a fast-spreading new variant.

 

Boris Johnson sparked fury on Saturday night after he cancelled Christmas for more than 16million people living in London and across the South East. Shops, gyms, hairdressers and beauty salons were ordered to shut again, with residents told not to leave Tier Four.

In his embarrassing U-turn, the Prime Minister – who last week claimed it would be ‘inhuman’ to cancel Christmas – also slashed a festive amnesty from five days to just one for the rest of the UK.

It comes after it was revealed yesterday that Professor Ferguson played a major role in the dramatic cancellation of Christmas. He was among those attending a meeting of Nervtag – the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group – to discuss the new mutant strain of coronavirus on Friday.

Dozens of countries have all already banned travel from Britain over fears the mutated strain of coronavirus could spread, with France last night causing chaos over the last minute decision to shut the border. Mr Johnson will hold crisis talks with Ministers today as he chairs the Government’s Cobra committee amid warnings of ‘significant disruption’ around the Channel ports in Kent.

Discussing the prospect of the harshest lockdown measures being in place until the spring, Professor Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The Government gets criticised for changing policy all the time.

‘This virus is unpredictable, how people behave is unpredictable, so we will track the epidemic as we always have done. Policy will be formed on the basis of that.

‘The tiers are reviewed every two weeks and will continue to be reviewed. But I certainly agree it’s not looking optimistic right now.’

Warning Tier Four measures may be extended, Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London, a member of Nervtag, told The Times: ‘It’s very unlikely anything less than really effective measures are going to control it.

‘My concern is people are not going to comply. It’s really important people appreciate the danger.’

The Health Secretary suggested other parts of the country would also be plunged into Tier Four if a significant number of cases of the mutant virus emerged.

One senior Conservative MP called for Mr Hancock to resign over the shambolic handling of the Christmas rules.

And furious Tories demanded a recall of Parliament to debate and vote on the changes to pandemic laws, which were made unilaterally by Mr Hancock in the early hours of yesterday.

Health officials across the UK recorded 35,928 positive cases – a new record figure – and another 326 deaths today

Mr Hancock yesterday said a third national lockdown was ‘not inevitable’.

But a Government source said ministers would not hesitate to extend Tier Four if necessary. ‘We need to see what the impact of Tier Four is,’ the source said.

‘The new strain is pretty widespread in London and the South East, which is very worrying, but in other parts of the country the tier system is still working. ‘If it is contained within London and the South East, that’s one thing.

‘But if people are leaving that region and potentially spreading it to the rest of the country then that is a big problem. Another lockdown is not out of the question.’

In a bid to head off a Tory mutiny, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove held seminars for MPs on the mutant Covid strain by video link.

But former chief whip Mark Harper led the demands for parliament to be recalled.

Sir Charles Walker, vice-chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tories, accused ministers of delaying the decision to cancel Christmas until MPs had left for the festive break.

QUESTIONS ANSWERED ON NEW COVID MUTATION: HOW DID IT HAPPEN, IS IT MORE DANGEROUS AND HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN IN THE UK?

By David Churchill

What has happened to the coronavirus to trigger such concern?

A new strain of Covid has developed which is said to spread far faster. A ‘strain’ is a new version of a virus which has genetic mutations. The new strain is a version of Sars-Cov-2, the coronavirus which causes the disease Covid-19.

It has been named VUI-202012/01. These letters and numbers stand for ‘variant under investigation’ and the month, December 2020.

What makes it so worrying?

This particular variant is defined by up to 17 changes or mutations in the coronavirus spike protein. It is the combination of some of these changes which scientists believe could make it more infectious.

It is thought they could help the virus’ spike protein latch on to human cells and gain entry more easily.

Is it certain the new variation is accelerating the spread of the virus?

No, but scientists say preliminary evidence suggests it does.

Boris Johnson said it may spread up to 70 per cent more easily than other strains of the virus, potentially driving up the ‘R rate’ – which measures how quickly the virus spreads – significantly.

On Saturday night, Mr Johnson said it could drive up the ‘R rate’ by as much as 0.4.

This would be particularly significant in areas such as Eastern England, where it is 1.4, and both London and the South East, where it is 1.3. The ‘R rate’ must remain below 1 for infections to decrease.

Is the new variant more dangerous?

Scientists don’t think so for now. When asked on Saturday night if it was more lethal than the previous strain, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said ‘the answer seems to be ‘No’, as far as we can tell at the moment’.

Yesterday Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said there was evidence of people with the new variant having higher viral loads inside them.

But she said this did not mean people would get more ill.

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘It’s unlikely it’ll make people sicker, but it could make it harder to control.’

If it does make the virus harder to control and hospitals become overrun, it could pose new challenges.

Are mutations unusual?

No. Seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of Sars-Cov-2 have also been observed in other countries, such as Spain.

However, one scientific paper suggests the number and combination of changes which have occurred in this new variant is potentially ‘unprecedented’.

Most mutations observed to date are thought to have happened more slowly. Also, most changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads.

There are already about 4,000 mutations in the spike protein gene.

What has caused the mutation?

This is still being investigated. One theory is that growing natural immunity in the UK population, which makes it harder for the virus to spread, might have forced it to adapt.

Another theory is that it has developed in chronically ill patients who have fought the virus off over a long period of time, with it then being passed onto others.

Prof Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, yesterday said it was ‘plausible’ and ‘highly likely’ this has happened.

However, he stressed it is impossible to prove at the moment.

What evidence is there to support the latter theory?

Some evidence supporting it was spotted when samples of virus were collected from a Cambridge patient. They had been treated with convalescent plasma – blood plasma containing antibodies from a recovered patient.

It is possible the virus mutated during that treatment, developing more resistance to the antibodies. This patient died of the infection, but it’s also possible the mutation has occurred elsewhere.

A paper co-authored by Andrew Rambaut, Professor of Molecular Evolution at the University of Edinburgh, states: ‘If antibody therapy is administered after many weeks of chronic infection, the virus population may be unusually large and genetically diverse…creating suitable circumstances for the rapid fixation of multiple virus genetic changes.’

Professor Hunter added: ‘Mutation in viruses are a random event and the longer someone is infected the more likely a random event is to occur.’

What do these mutations do?

Many occur in what’s called the ‘receptor binding domain’ of the virus’ spike protein. This helps the virus latch on to human cells and gain entry. The mutations make it easier for the virus to bind to human cells’ ACE2 receptors.

It is also possible the changes help the virus avoid human antibodies which would otherwise help fight off infection.

Who detected it?

It was discovered by the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which carries out random genetic sequencing of positive covid-19 samples.

It is a consortium of the UK’s four public health agencies, Wellcome Sanger Institute and 12 academic institutions.

How long has it been in the UK and where did it start?

As of mid-December, there were more than 1,000 cases in nearly 60 different local authorities, although the true number will be higher.

They have predominantly been found in the south east of England, in Kent and London. It may now account for 60 per cent of the capital’s cases.

But it has been detected elsewhere, including in Wales and Scotland.

The two earliest samples were collected on September 20 in Kent and another the next day in London.

Why was action to tackle it not taken sooner?

Because the potentially greater transmissibility was only discovered late last week by academics.

Has it been detected anywhere else in the world?

One aspect of the new variant, known as a N501Y mutation, was circulating in Australia between June and July, in America in July and in Brazil as far back as April, according to scientists.

It is therefore unclear what role, if any, travellers carrying the virus may have had.

Dr Julian Tang, a Virologist and expert in Respiratory science at the University of Leicester, said: ‘Whether or not these viruses were brought to the UK and Europe later by travellers or arose spontaneously in multiple locations around the world – in response to human host immune selection pressures – requires further investigation.’

Another change, known as the D614G variant, has previously been detected in western Europe and North America. But it is possible that the new variant evolved in the UK.

What can I do to avoid getting the new variant?

The same as always – keeping your distance from people, washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask and abiding by the tier restrictions in your area.

Yesterday Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, said: ‘The way in which you control the spread of the virus, including this new variant, is exactly the same. It is about continuing stringent measures. The same rules apply.’

Will the new variant reduce the effectiveness of vaccines?

More studies are needed.

Dr Susan Hopkins, of Public Health England, said that until these are carried out scientists cannot be certain whether – and by how much – the new variant reduces the effectiveness of developed vaccines.

She said: ‘The vaccine induces a strong, multiple response, immune response and therefore it is unlikely that this vaccine response is going to be completely gone.’ When mutations happen it is, in theory, possible the antibodies generated by vaccines can be evaded.

But vaccines produce a wide range of antibodies that simultaneously attack the virus from different angles, making it hard for it to evade all of them at once.

Vaccines could also be tweaked to make them more effective if the new mutation does prove to be more resistant to them.

So what are the scientists doing now?

Scientists will be growing the new strain in the lab to see how it responds. This includes looking at whether it produces the same antibody response, how it reacts to the vaccine, and modelling the new strain.

It could take up to two weeks for this process to be complete.

 

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