LONDON — London will be placed into England's toughest tier of coronavirus restrictions from midnight on Wednesday morning following a rapid rise in Covid-19 infection rates.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Monday confirmed the move as he addressed lawmakers in the House of Commons. He said British authorities had identified a new variant of the virus that may be linked with the faster spread of cases in southeast England.
"Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants," Hancock said, adding that, so far, 1,000 cases of the new variant had been identified in England.
"There is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is it's highly unlikely this mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine."
Hancock said similar variants of the coronavirus had been identified in other countries in recent months and U.K. health authorities had notified the World Health Organization. Public health experts would continue to analyze the newly-identified variant of the virus in the U.K., Hancock said.
Earlier this month, the government imposed a three-tiered system of public health measures across England to try to curb the spread of the outbreak following a month-long lockdown.
Millions of people across the country were placed into "Tier 3" at the time, but the U.K.'s capital city was put into the second-highest tier of restrictions.
A nationwide review of the tiered-system had initially been scheduled for Dec. 16.
Alongside London, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire are also set to move into "Tier 3" from 00:01 London time on Wednesday.
"I know that this is difficult news, and I know that it will mean plans disrupted and that for businesses affected it will be a significant blow," Hancock said.
"But this action is absolutely essential, not just to keep people safe but because we have seen early action can help prevent more damaging and longer-lasting problems later," he added.
Under Tier 3 restrictions, people cannot mix indoors, in private gardens or most outdoor venues.
Shops, gyms and personal care services like hairdressers are allowed to stay open, but bars, pubs and restaurants must close except for takeaway and delivery.
"I know these steps are hard, but we must not waver as we enter the final stretch so that when we look back on this time of crisis, we can all say that we played our part," Hancock said.
Last week, the U.K. became the first country to inoculate people with a coronavirus treatment that went through full testing.
Margaret Keenan, who was 90-years-old at the time, made history as the world's first person to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine outside of trial conditions.
It will now be given to front-line health workers, nursing home workers and those aged over 80 before it is given more widely among the U.K. population.
It is hoped a safe and effective vaccine could help bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic.
To date, more than 72.3 million people have contracted Covid-19 worldwide, with 1.61 million related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
— CNBC's Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.