Primary and secondary schools will close immediately as England goes into a full six-week national lockdown lasting until February 15, Boris Johnson has said.
In a TV address to the nation, the prime minister confirmed that exams will be cancelled this summer.
It follows first minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and her Welsh counterpart Mark Drakeford closing schools in the devolved nations. Northern Ireland is expected to follow suit, Arlene Foster said.
Nurseries, childcare settings and playgrounds will remain open, Johnson said.
Saying the weeks ahead would be the “hardest yet”, Johnson said Covid cases surged to their highest level yet as he ordered people to stay at home.
Adding parents “may reasonably ask why” decisions on schools were not taken sooner, he said: “The answer is simply that we’ve been doing everything in our power to keep schools open because we know how important each day in education is to children’s life chances.”
Johnson added: “I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe for children. Children are still very unlikely to be severely affected by even the new variant of Covid.
“The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”
The prime minister has also banned all non-essential travel and ordered people to stay at home after Covid cases surged to their highest level yet.
People can now only leave their home for one of five reasons:
- To go to work if it is impossible to work from home, such as in construction or if they are critical workers
- To shop for necessities
- To exercise locally. This can be either with members of their household or support bubble, or with one person from one other household. Socialising outdoors is banned
- To provide care or help to a vulnerable person
- To attend a medical appointment, seek healthcare, or flee harm such as domestic abuse
All non-essential retail, hospitality and personal care services, such as salons and hairdressers, will also be ordered to close.
Parliament will be recalled so MPs can vote on the measures but Johnson made clear that the situation was so grave that the public should obey the regulations immediately even though they will not be law until Wednesday.
People who are clinically vulnerable should stay at home and only leave for medical appointments and exercise, the PM also said.
“I know how tough this is, and I know how frustrated you are and I know you have had more than enough of government guidance about defeating this virus, but now, more than ever, we must pull together,” he said.
Ministers have learned the pandemic has grown dramatically in recent days, as the new and more transmissible strain identified before Christmas continues to spread.
Addressing the nation, Johnson said the new variant – which is 50% to 70% more transmissible – was spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” manner.
“As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic,” he said.
Hospitalisations hit 26,626 on January 4, which is 40% higher than at the peak of the first wave in April (18,974) and 30% higher than just one week earlier.
On Monday afternoon, the chief medical officers agreed to increase the Covid threat level from four to five for the first time.
It comes amid fears that if immediate action was not taken that the NHS could be overwhelmed within 21 days.
Johnson suggested England could “steadily” move out of lockdown from mid-February but refused to commit to a timetable.
Saying the country was entering “the last phase of the struggle”, he added: “If our understanding of the virus doesn’t change dramatically, once again, if the rollout of the vaccine programme continues to be successful, if deaths start to fall as the vaccine takes effect and – critically – if everyone plays their part by following the rules, then I hope we can steadily move out of lockdown, reopening schools after the February half-term and starting cautiously to move regions down the tiers.”