Minister Michael Gove has shocked shoppers after being spotted laden with bags in London - despite knowing about plans to introduce Tier 4 hours before anyone else.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was photographed on Saturday wearing a face mask while walking with what appeared to be bags from upmarket department store Fortnum and Mason as he passed outside the front of The Ritz on Piccadilly.
On Saturday afternoon, Boris Johnson revealed that a third of England - including London and swathes of the home counties - will be thrust into a brutal 'Tier 4' lockdown from midnight.
The draconian bracket will see non-essential shops shut, and travel restrictions including a 'stay at home' order for Christmas Day itself - even though Mr Johnson insisted just days ago that it would be 'inhuman' to axe five-day festive 'bubbles'.
The introduction of the new tier seeks to curb a new more infectious strain of the virus, Johnson explained during a press briefing.
Businesses have dubbed the new Tier 4 lockdown rules a 'kick in the teeth' for struggling firms while panicked Londoners wondered how they would be able to finish their Christmas shopping.
Britain's Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove was pictured on Saturday carrying bags as he walked past the Ritz in London on December 19, 2020
On Saturday afternoon, Boris Johnson revealed that a third of England - including London and swathes of the home counties - will be thrust into a brutal 'Tier 4' lockdown from midnight
The Confederation of British Industry slammed the move as 'a real kick in the teeth', claiming many businesses 'were counting on clawing back some lost ground' over the Christmas shopping season.
Up to £2 billion in sales may be lost per week by the new measures, it has been estimated, with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that the Government's 'stop-start' approach to regulations was 'deeply unhelpful'.
And furious Britons took to social media to air their frustration in the lead up to Christmas - with several slamming the last-minute change for wreaking havoc on their shopping plans.
Pictured: People shopping on Oxford Street in central London on the last Saturday shopping day before Christmas. Boris Johnson has cancelled Christmas for millions of people across London and south-east England after scientists said that a new coronavirus variant is spreading more rapidly
Businesses have dubbed the new Tier 4 lockdown rules a 'kick in the teeth' for struggling firms while panicked Londoners wondered how they would be able to finish their Christmas shopping. Pictured: London's Oxford Street on Saturday
CBI chief UK policy director Matthew Fell said: 'Wherever infections rise, it's right that the Government takes the necessary steps to protect public health.
'But news that large swathes of the South East will come under new tier 4 restrictions will be a real kick in the teeth for many businesses already struggling badly.
'While much of the impact of Tier 4 will be on people's family lives, many retailers were counting on clawing back some lost ground after a really hard year.
'Support is there when business premises are forced to close and must reach firms swiftly, along with the recently extended loan and furlough support.
'But there's no doubt a fresh look will be needed in January as to how the Government can support UK businesses through to the Spring. All efforts must be made to accelerate the roll out of mass rapid testing and the vaccine so they can start to have an impact.'
Adam Marshall, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, echoed concerns over the lockdown's impact on businesses.
He said: 'Christmas was already cancelled for many businesses, but even more will now suffer as a result of this last-minute decision.
'While Government must act on public health concerns, it must also address the economic consequences of its actions. Will there be more help for firms being forced to shut their doors - and for those who have paid for stock they now can't sell?
'What support will there be for companies whose cash flow projections have once again been thrown into chaos?
'The introduction of an additional tier without warning or additional help is a huge blow to businesspeople who wanted nothing more than to be able to trade safely through the holiday season and beyond.
'It is clear ministers across all four nations are now considering even tougher measures. With huge numbers of firms already on the edge, it would be unconscionable for further restrictions or closures to be announced without a more comprehensive package of support in place that gives businesses the confidence that ministers will stand by them through an uncertain year ahead.'
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, said: 'We recognise that the Government has difficult decisions to make and the situation with the pandemic is very fast moving, but this is hugely regrettable news.
'Retailers have invested hundreds of millions of pounds making stores Covid-secure for customers and staff.
'The consequences of this decision will be severe.
Pictured: Shoppers queue outside a shop in Oxford Street on Saturday night ahead of the introduction of Tier 4, announced by Boris Johnson on Saturday evening in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus
The draconian bracket will see non-essential shops shut, and travel restrictions including a 'stay at home' order for Christmas Day itself - even though Mr Johnson insisted just days ago that it would be 'inhuman' to axe five-day festive 'bubbles'
'For businesses, the government's stop-start approach is deeply unhelpful - this decision comes only two weeks after the end of the last national lockdown and right in the middle of peak trading which so many are depending on to power their recovery.
'Faced with this news - and the prospect of losing £2 billion per week in sales for the third time this year - many businesses will be in serious difficulty and many thousands of jobs could be at risk.'
Councillor Rachael Robathan, leader of Westminster City Council, said: 'On every level this is devastating... for those businesses now staring into the abyss after having had a last gasp at pre-Christmas sales snatched from them.
'The shockwaves of this are going to jolt through every part of Westminster.
'This is an absolute tragedy for everyone who had worked so hard to revitalise our West End and fan the embers of recovery for our City.'
Following the announcements, business leaders have urged the Government to provide further emergency support packages for businesses.
Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that 'exceptional and immediate cash' should be provided.
'With our hospitality businesses already closed, the vast majority of the high street follows suit,' he said.
'International travel restrictions have huge implications for London's airports and onward benefit into the capital's and UK economy.
Pictured: Shoppers, some wearing a face mask or covering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, look at shop window displays inside a chrestmas-themed Burlington Arcade in London on December 19, 2020
The Star barbers in Guildford with a people waiting to get their haircut at the last minute before tier 4 restrictions come into place
'The Chancellor must this evening announce exceptional and immediate cash and grant aid for all retail, leisure and hospitality business that will be shutting their doors tonight.'
Federation of Small Businesses vice-chair Martin McTague added that Tier 4 restrictions would be a 'hammer blow' to non-essential retailers.
'From shops to hairdressers, this would normally the one of the busiest times of the year,' he said.
'Many will have bought extra stock and increased staff hours, now their takings are to disappear literally overnight.
'Gyms, and so many that rely on them more than ever for physical and mental health, will also be devastated.
'Whenever new restrictions have been imposed, the Government has conceded that emergency support must be provided.
'This sudden intensification of restrictions demands an intensification of the emergency support package required, and it must be delivered now.'
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said retailers had 'lost all confidence' in the Government strategy for tackling Covid-19.
He said: 'The unrelenting closing and reopening of businesses is costing owners hundreds of thousands of pounds, and coupled with the erratic decision-making around restrictions, is rapidly destroying the ability of the sector to bounce back.
'This financial burden and commitment has been recognised only in lip-service, with insubstantial support measures to repay confidence in the sector.'
Non-essential retail in Wales will also have to shut as of midnight tonight, First Minister Mark Drakeford has said.
The PM told the nation tonight that he had 'no alternative' but to act after more evidence surfaced about the devastating spread of a mutant Covid strain.
Mr Johnson said it could increase the crucial R rate by 0.4 and be 70 per cent more transmissible than previous versions.
'We must act now,' he said, appealing for the public to 'stay local'. 'We cannot continue with Christmas as planned....
'I know how much emotion people invest in this time of year and how important it is for grandparents to see their grandchildren and families to be together.
'So I know how disappointing this will be. But I have said throughout this pandemic that we must and will be guided by the science.'
He added: 'As your Prime Minister, I sincerely believe there is no alternative open to me.
'Without action, the evidence suggests infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives.'
Chief science officer Patrick Vallance said there was no sign so far that the mutation would be able to nullify vaccines - reassuring news for around 350,000 people Mr Johnson revealed have now received their first dose.
'This virus spreads more easily and therefore more measures are needed to keep it under control.'
Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said that danger was that people moving around the country would 'seed' the variant. 'This is a bad moment,' he said.
The new Tier 4 will be imposed on all existing Tier 3 areas in the South East, covering Kent, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Surrey (excluding Waverley), Gosport, Havant, Portsmouth, Rother and Hastings.
It will also apply in London, Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire, and Essex - excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring.
The rules will be essentially the same as the blanket lockdown that England was under in November. Non-essential retail must close, as well as leisure facilities, and personal care such as hairdressers.
However, places of worship can stay open.
People in other Tiers will be advised not to go into the highest bracket areas, while residents of Tier 4 must not stay overnight in lower infection spots.
They will apply for at least two weeks, with the situation due to be considered at the next review point on December 30. Schools will not be affected immediately as they have broken up for Christmas - but it is not clear what will happen if the Tier 4 restrictions need to be maintained into January.
Furious Britons took to social media to vent their anger at the change of tiers.
One person wrote: 'So what is Tier 4 now? Are all non essential things closing? Like stuff everyone who hasn't finished Christmas shopping?'
Another said: 'I don't know what Tier 4 is and if it's legit but that has incentivised me to do all my in-store Christmas shopping today.'
One worried woman added: 'Let me get ready to go and do the rest of my Christmas shopping because I don't know what this Tier 4 talk is about.'
A fifth angry shopper wrote: 'Boris had better not close the shops... I need to go my Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve!'
Ministers have been undergoing talks on to contain the mutant strain - which is so far thought to have been confined largely to the South East.
The Welsh government broke ranks with the rest of the UK by scaling back Christmas bubbles, in effect from December 23 to 27, from three to two households. It is thought bubbles will still be permitted in Tiers 1-3 in England.
Britons took to social media to air their frustration, with one writing: 'Wtf is tier 4 I need to do Christmas shopping'
Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty this afternoon confirmed that the new variant is more contagious.
He said: 'As announced on Monday, the UK has identified a new variant of Covid-19 through Public Health England's genomic surveillance.
'As a result of the rapid spread of the new variant, preliminary modelling data and rapidly rising incidence rates in the South East, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) now consider that the new strain can spread more quickly.
'We have alerted the World Health Organisation and are continuing to analyse the available data to improve our understanding.
'There is no current evidence to suggest the new strain causes a higher mortality rate or that it affects vaccines and treatments although urgent work is underway to confirm this.
'Given this latest development it is now more vital than ever that the public continue to take action in their area to reduce transmission.'
His warning follows experiments from Wiltshire's Porton Down laboratory which found that the new variant is 50 per cent more contagious than any strain detected before.
Unaware of the bad news to come, countless Britons still flocked to the country's high streets and supermarkets today as they stocked up on Christmas essentials and bought presents.
The PM has summoned an emergency press conference this afternoon after holding crisis talks with Cabinet - with signs that swathes of the home counties, including London, will be shifted up to the new level of restrictions
Experts predict the UK's tills will ring with a staggering £2.5million-a-minute spent before December 22 as shoppers stack up on last-minute gifts.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been pushing for tighter restrictions all week, but senior government sources insist there are no current plans for a third national lockdown or a fourth tier - though proposals are understood to have been drawn up.
It is understood the Prime Minister was last night provided with 'alarming' new evidence on the harmfulness of the mutant strain, but one expert said today it could be weeks before it is known just how damaging it could be.
Professor Sir Mark Walport - a member of the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) - said last night there was a real possibility that it could have a 'transmission advantage'.
xperts predict the UK's tills will ring with a staggering £2.5million-a-minute spent before December 22 as shoppers stack up on last-minute gifts
'What happens with viruses is they do naturally mutate all the time and the ones that are likely to do well are the ones that increase transmission,' he told BBC2's Newsnight.
'We know that this is a new variant, it has been seen in other countries but it seems to be quite widespread which suggests that it has got a transmission advantage.
'Scientists are working extremely hard to work out what is going on. But it does definitely seem possible that this transmits more easily.
'It will make the social-distancing even more critical.'
It comes after data used to justify putting 38 million people into Tier 3 were published yesterday, with the UK's R number rising above one again.
A series of charts were released by the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), the secretive Whitehall organisation tasked with allocating the whack-a-mole-style lockdowns, after swathes of the South East were plunged into the strictest bracket as part of the first shake-up of the system since the national shutdown ended.
They highlight the North-South divide that has emerged since the country came out of lockdown on December 2, with London and the home counties now bearing the brunt of the winter wave and the epidemic fizzling out in Tier 3 northern areas.
A sea of green - representing shrinking outbreaks - has emerged in the former hotspot regions of the North East and Yorkshire since the national intervention was lifted, with infections now concentrated in and around London and its commuter belt.