ENGLAND will enter a new national lockdown from tomorrow to tackle soaring coronavirus case numbers – with schools closing to most pupils after just one day of term.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the move in a televised address to the nation at 8pm today, January 4, just hours after a new record high of Covid cases for the UK was announced.

Cheshire and Warrington had already been moved twice up the tiers in the past fortnight, moving from Tier 2 to Tier 3 on Boxing Day and then up Tier 4 on New Year’s Eve, the same day Halton and Merseyside moved up to Tier 3.

Now, the whole country will enter its third lockdown, with the tightest restrictions seen since the first wave last spring – with schools only open to vulnerable children or children of key workers.

Mr Johnson said the measure was necessary because the new Covid variant is between 50 and 70 per cent more transmissible than the original.

He explained that there were nearly one-third more Covid patients in NHS England hospitals over the past week, higher than in April 2020 peak, while there was a 20 per cent increase in deaths in the past week.

Mr Johnson said: “With most of the country already under extreme measures, it is clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control.

“We must go into a national lockdown that is tough enough to contain this variant.

"I know how tough this is, I know how frustrated you are, and I know you have had more than enough Government guidance about defeating this.

"But now, more than ever, we must pull together."

The Prime Minister added that the country must now 'stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives', in an echo of the original lockdown message from last March.

People can now only leave home to shop for essentials, to go to work if not possible at home, for exercise, for medical assistance or to escape domestic abuse.

Shielding will resume for clinically extremely vulnerable residents, having been paused last August, while outdoor group sport can no longer take place.

School exams will not be going ahead as usual this summer, with Mr Johnson saying this would not be 'fair', but free school meal provision will be made available and nurseries will remain open.

The decision follows calls from teaching unions over the weekend to halt the opening of primary schools this morning, which the Government resisted, leading to pupils returning to class today.

"We have been doing everything in our power to keep schools open because we know how important each day is in education to children's life chances," Mr Johnson added.

"The problem is that schools may act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households."

England has now moved up to Covid alert level five, which is the highest alert level.

However, Mr Johnson suggested 'if things go well', the first vaccine dose should have been issued to everyone in the top priority group by mid-February, which could enable restrictions to be lifted.

Before the Prime Minister’s announcement, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said the latest figures on the number of Covid-19 patients in hospital showed the pandemic was at a ‘critical point’.

“NHS trust leaders are insistent that any tightening [of restrictions] should be immediate and decisive,” he said.

“They are clear that the current Tier 3 rules are insufficient and the Tier 4 rules appear to just slow down the rate of increase in Covid transmission, as opposed to actually cutting it.”

Meanwhile, Scotland’s Government has also announced a national lockdown today, while Welsh schools will move to online learning only until January 18.

Parliament will reconvene on Wednesday to make the new lockdown restrictions law, but Mr Johnson urged the public to follow the new rules immediately.