All quarantine-free travel into the UK will be suspended from Monday in a bid to keep out new coronavirus strains, Boris Johnson has announced.
The Prime Minister said that anyone flying into the country from overseas will have to show proof of a negative Covid test before setting off.
It comes after the Government banned flights from South America, Portugal and Cape Verde due to the emergence of a new variant in Brazil.
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street briefing that with the “hope” given by vaccines and the “risk” of new variants, “we must take additional steps now to stop those strains from entering the country”.
People arriving in the UK from a destination with a travel corridor are currently exempt from the 10-day quarantine requirement.
But the new policy means arrivals from every destination will need to self-isolate for 10 days, or receive a negative result from a coronavirus test taken at least five days after they enter the UK.
A number of exemptions to the travel corridor policy – such as business travel – will be also suspended. The rules – which will be a further blow to the travel sector – come into effect from 0400 on Monday.
Labour accused the Government of “closing the door after the horse has bolted”, saying the announcement was too late to have stopped the arrival of “worrying” strains.
Two variants of interest have been identified in Brazil – though only one, which has a small number of mutations, has been detected in the UK.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it was likely that the current vaccines will provide protection against other variants, but said “the question is to what degree”.
More than 3.2 million people have now received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine in the UK – around double the number compared to last week.
The Government has set a target of vaccinating 15 million of the most vulnerable people in the UK by mid-February.
Mr Johnson said that after then “we will think about what steps we could take to lift the restrictions”, but stressed that any easing will depend on what is happening with the virus.
He also warned that the NHS is facing “extraordinary pressures”, saying “this is not the time for the slightest relaxation of our national resolve”.
The Prime Minister said: “On Tuesday, we saw 4,134 new admissions to hospital on a single day – the highest at any point in this pandemic.
“There are now more than 37,000 Covid patients in hospitals across the UK and in spite of all the efforts of our doctors and nurses and our medical staff we’re now seeing cancer treatments sadly postponed, ambulances queuing, and intensive care units spilling over into adjacent wards.”
Mr Johnson said around one third of Covid patients admitted to hospital are under 65, while a quarter are under 55.
He added: “So it can affect and does affect huge numbers of younger people as well, often very badly, and the risk is that those numbers would be greatly inflated if we let go too soon in circumstances where the disease was really rampant.
“That is not to say that I don’t want to try to get to relaxations as soon as we reasonably can – but there are a lot of things that have to go right.”
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said restrictions would need to be eased gradually, telling the briefing: “We’re not going to move from a sudden lockdown situation to nothing.
“It will have to be walking backwards by degrees, testing what works, and then if that works going the next step.”
Prof Whitty also said the number of patients being admitted to hospital with coronavirus is set to peak within the next 10 days – but that the peak in deaths will be later.
He said that while it was “very likely” the outlook for the UK will improve greatly by the spring – suggesting at some point after Easter – it will not “suddenly” be “all over”.
A further 1,280 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Friday, while there were another 55,761 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
In other developments:
– The global death toll from Covid-19 has passed two million, according to a count from Johns Hopkins University in the US.
– Boris Johnson said 45% of the over-80s and almost 40% of care home residents have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
– Government scientists put the latest reproductive number – the R rate – for the UK at 1.2 to 1.3, for data examined up to January 11.
Elsewhere in the UK, toughened lockdown restrictions will come into force in Scotland – with new rules on takeaway food and drink, and the end of non-essential click-and-collect services.
In Wales, First Minister Mark Drakeford announced new measures for supermarkets due to “significant evidence” that coronavirus is spreading among customers and staff.
And in Northern Ireland, Stormont health minister Robin Swann said it was “highly unlikely” restrictions will be eased when their six-week lockdown ends.