London, most of Essex and parts of Hertfordshire will move into England’s highest tier of Covid restrictions, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.
The areas join tier three at 00:01 GMT on Wednesday, meaning some 34 million people will face the toughest rules.
A new variant of coronavirus has been identified that “may be associated” with the faster spread in southern England, Mr Hancock added.
Pubs and restaurants in tier three must close except for takeaway and delivery.
Also under the rules, sports fans cannot attend events in stadiums, and indoor entertainment venues – such as theatres, bowling alleys and cinemas – must remain shut, the BBC reports.
The health secretary told a Downing Street briefing that action had to be taken immediately – before the next scheduled review of England’s three-tier system on Wednesday – to slow “sharp, exponential rises” in infection.
Speaking alongside England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty and Prof Kevin Fenton, London regional director for Public Health England, Mr Hancock warned that hospitals across the capital and in Essex and Kent were already “under pressure”.
He described the rise in transmission and the new variant as “a salutary warning for the whole country,” adding “this isn’t over yet.”
The BBC added with Kent, Medway and Slough already under tier three rules, it means large parts of south-east England will soon join much of the Midlands, north-west England and north-east England under the strictest curbs on social contacts.
More than 34 million people in England will be in tier three when the changes come into effect: 21.5 million in tier two; and about 700,000 in tier one.
Get the latest coronavirus updates and vaccination news here.