THE UK has recorded 39,036 new Covid infections overnight as Brits battle their way through surging infections.
Another 574 people have died as the toll hits highs last seen during the peak of the first wave in April.
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Shoppers make the most of their last day out in Southampton. The city will go into Tier 4 on Boxing DayCredit: Alamy Live News
Thousands of lorries are stuck in Dover after France closed the border earlier this weekCredit: Alamy Live News
Today’s rise in cases is only slightly lower than it was yesterday, when a record high of 39,237 new infections were recorded.
And it is up on the figure recorded this time last week (36,804).
It means 2,188,587 people have now tested positive for the bug in Britain, with fears as many as 50,000 Covid cases could be recorded on Christmas Day.
A total of 69,625 have now died within 28 days of testing positive for the bug since the start of the pandemic.
Today’s rise in deaths is smaller than it was yesterday (744) and lower than the rise recorded this time last week (691).
But it remains higher than any daily rise recorded in the months between June and November.
It comes as:
Thousands of people will be in hospitals tomorrow, Christmas Day, as a mutant strain of coronavirus takes hold.
In England, a 30-year-old with no underlying health conditions was one of 350 patients to die.
Casualties were aged between 25 and 100, and all but seven had known underlying health conditions.
The Midlands suffered the highest death rate, with 87 fatalities, followed by the east of England, where 64 died, and and the south-east, where 53 people lost their lives.
Millions more in both the south-east and the east are bracing for Tier 4 lockdowns from Boxing Day.
A further 46 people in London, 44 in the north-west, 44 in the north-east and Yorkshire, and 12 in the south-west also died in hospital.
In Scotland, 1,314 new cases of Covid and 43 more deaths were recorded, while in Wales, now the UK’s virus hotspot, 2,161 people are newly-infected and a further 63 have died.
It comes amid calls to cancel Christmas altogether over fears people will pass the mutated virus onto loved ones.
24 million people in the south and east will be in the country’s strictest tier from 12.01am on Boxing Day – but some academics are demanding it be brought forward to today for the whole country.
Experts from the Independent SAGE group say much more is needed to control the spread of a new mutant Covid.
Millions more in the south and east are heading into the strictest tier on Boxing Day
Under Tier 4, household mixing is banned and non-essential shops must shut
Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed a highly infectious new South African strain has been found in the UK.
Now the group have issued a statement claiming the situation is “rapidly worsening” and “incredibly dangerous”.
Tiers 1 to 3 “are not able to contain the spread of the new variant”, they say.
Modelling from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows the mutation will account for 90 per cent of new cases by mid-January, it’s claimed.
Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) say they believe around half of all new cases in England could be the variant.
An estimated 645,800 people in private households in the country had Covid between December 12 and 18, according to the body – the equivalent of around 1.18 per cent of the population, or one in 85 people.
In London, 68 per cent of positive cases from December 14 to 18 were estimated to be genetically compatible with the new variant, while in eastern and south-east England the estimate is 65 per cent.
For England as a whole, the statistics agency estimates that 49 per cent of new cases could be the mutant strain that resulted in the creation of the new Tier 4 restrictions.
The variation has caused travel chaos for Brits around the world.
On Thursday, China’s foreign ministry said it would suspend flights to and from the UK, joining a list of nations who have imposed travel bans in light of the discovery.
Elsewhere, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that authorities would personally visit all travellers from the UK to ensure they are isolating.
Full list of regions which will change tiers from Boxing Day
The changes will come into force on Boxing Day
Tier 3 to 4
Waverley in Surrey
Hampshire (apart from the New Forest) Portsmouth, Southampton.
Tier 2 to 3
Somerset including N Somerset
Isle of Wight
Tier 1 to 2
And Britain has implemented its own travel ban on South Africa.
Thousands of lorry drivers also remain stranded in Kent after France closed its borders for 48 hours.
Military personnel are testing all hauliers stuck at the Port of Dover before they can travel onwards.
And Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Christmas Eve that ferries from Dover to Calais would run on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
Britain is bracing for a hard winter, despite early successes for vaccinations.
Some 366,715 of these were over 80, while the remaining 30 per cent were care home residents under 80, care home staff and NHS workers.
Margaret Keenan became the first to get the jab on December 8.