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As many as 15 million Brits could be moved into Tier 4 tonight as the Government struggles to get surging coronavirus cases under control, according to reports.
More areas of England are to be placed under the country's toughest restrictions, Health Secretary Matt Hancock is expected to tell the Commons on Wednesday.
This means two thirds of the country could be moving up into Tier 4 as soon as midnight tonight, according to The Times.
Most of the rest of England would meanwhile be moved up into Tier 3, formally the toughest level of restrictions under the Government's original tier scheme, the Mirror reports.
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These new tiers will be "active from New Year's Eve onwards", the Times' Tom Newton Dunn reports.
Senior ministers will also reportedly meet today to make a decision on delaying the new school term, and are expected to order the nation's secondary schools to remain shut through next week with a staggered return no earlier than January 11.
Pressure has mounted on the Government to act as hospitals warned of increasing strains on services due to Covid-19 patient numbers, which have reached their highest levels during the pandemic.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired a meeting of the Government's Covid-19 Operations committee on Tuesday evening, when changes to the tier system were discussed.
With case rates rising in all regions of England, as well as the number of patients in hospitals, any review is likely to involve areas moving up a tier rather than down.
Areas that may be moved from Tier 3 to Tier 4 due to increasing case rates include parts of the East Midlands, such as Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, as well as all areas of the West Midlands metropolitan county.
Hartlepool in north-east England, along with a handful of areas in Lancashire – Blackburn with Darwen, Burnley, Pendle and Ribble Valley – could also be upgraded from Tier 3 to 4.
Whole of England should be in Tier 4 to combat new Covid strain, top scientist warns
The Times also reported that ministers are also considering imposing the country's toughest measures on parts of the south west and Cumbria.
Figures from NHS England showed there were 21,787 patients in NHS hospitals in England as of 8am on Tuesday, compared with 20,426 on Monday, and 18,974 at the first wave peak on April 12.
Five of the seven NHS regions in England are currently reporting a record number of Covid-19 hospital patients: Eastern England, London, the Midlands, south-east England and south-west England.
The other two regions, north-east and north-west England, remain below peak levels that were set in mid-November.
Meanwhile the number of further lab-confirmed cases recorded in a single day in the UK hit a new record on Tuesday, rising above 50,000 for the first time, to 53,135.
The Government said a further 414 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday, bringing the UK total to 71,567.
One senior doctor said some trusts in London and the South East are considering the option of setting up tents outside hospitals – something normally reserved for sudden events such as terror attacks or industrial disasters – to triage patients.
The number of Covid-19 patients in London hospitals is now higher than levels recorded at the peak of the first wave of the virus, with 5,371 as of 8am on Tuesday, according to NHS England.
More than six million people in east and south-east England went into the highest level of restrictions on Saturday, meaning 24 million – 43% of the population – are now affected.
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