The government confirmed both Shropshire and Telford & Wrekin would move from Tier 2 into Tier 3 from today, and health officials have said that while the move is disappointing it is required to save lives.
With the announcement coming just one day before New Year's Eve, the move into 'Very High' alert was expected to cause particular disruption to the hospitality industry, which will be forced to close to the public.
Rachel Robinson, Shropshire's director of public health, said: "We are seeing cases rise across the county and over the past seven days in Shropshire we have seen 327 new cases, with numbers continuing to rise.
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"We are also seeing cases increase rapidly in neighbouring areas and across the country, putting pressure on vital services.
“Shropshire’s move into Tier 3 is a clear message that we must act to reduce the extra burden we’re placing on our local health services. Everyone needs to play their part and follow the rules which are there for our own protection and safety.
“Around one in three people with Covid-19 show no symptoms, so we should all act as if we have the virus. There are no shortcuts to protecting yourself and others. Apply ‘Hands. Face. Space.’ in each and every situation.
“Our Covid-19 test sites have good availability and any residents who are experiencing symptoms, no matter how mild, should book a test as soon as possible.”
Liz Noakes, Telford & Wrekin's director of public health, said: "The tragic reality is that this virus claims people’s lives and we need to do all we can to reduce the spread.
“While the ongoing vaccination programme provides hope, its full roll-out in the borough will take some time, so we’re still some way off being able to return to normality.
“As infection rates continue to rise in the borough, we must focus on keeping ourselves and each other safe. That means following the rules, looking out for vulnerable relatives and doing our best to drive the rates down.”
Millions under toughest restrictions
Shropshire is one of only a few areas in England that is not under the toughest Tier 4 rule.
More than three-quarters of the country’s population are now being ordered to stay at home, after swathes of the country were plunged into Tier 4 overnight.
Another 22 million people in parts of the North East, North West, South West and Midlands have been placed under lockdown measures in a bid to control infections.
People were warned they must ring in the New Year by staying at home and not mixing, with NHS England’s national medical director, Professor Stephen Powis, saying: “Covid loves a crowd.”
Trusts continue to face pressure, with Covid patient numbers in England having surpassed the April first-wave peak.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the military is standing by to staff Nightingale hospitals if the NHS exceeds its capacity of critical care beds.
And Union leaders are warning of the danger that health workers face burnout, soaring sickness levels and “intolerable” pressures because of the ongoing crisis.
A day after the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was announced, in what was hailed as a “game changer” moment, Mr Wallace said up to 250 teams of combat medics could be made available to help deliver the rollout across the country.
Meanwhile the reopening of secondary schools in England is being delayed until later in January, and in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19, primary school pupils will also not return to their desks as planned next week.
Universities are being asked to reduce the number of students returning to campus from the beginning of next month, and those who do return should be offered two rapid coronavirus tests.
The new restrictions mean a total of 44 million people, or 78 per cent of the population of England, are now in Tier 4, where non-essential shops, as well as gyms, cinemas, casinos and hairdressers, have to stay shut.
People are also limited to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space, and must not leave their Tier 4 area except for legally permitted reasons such as medical appointments.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK must redouble its efforts to fight coronavirus, and that “no-one regrets these measures more bitterly than I do” but insisted that “firm” action is needed to control the pandemic.
Another 981 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, the highest daily figure reported since April 24, though there is likely to be a lag in reporting deaths over the Christmas period.
And a further 50,023 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK were recorded as of 9am on Wednesday.
According to the Department of Health, between December 18 and 24 the weekly Covid-19 case rate in England rose to 402.6 per 100,000, a 32 per cent increase on the previous week.
Some 14,915 patients have been admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in the past week, an 18 per cent increase on the week before.
With 22,713 Covid-19 patients in hospitals in England as of 8am on Wednesday – higher than the first-wave peak – NHS Providers said pressure on hospitals is “intensifying”.
There were 55,226 daily new symptomatic cases of Covid-19 in the UK on average over the two weeks up to December 26 – not including care homes – according to the the Zoe Covid Symptom Study UK Infection Survey.
The survey figures, based on swab tests data from up to five days ago, suggest Wales, London and the South of England are still the main drivers of the high numbers of daily new cases in the UK, researchers said.
Meanwhile, GPs are being offered £10 for every care home resident they vaccinate in a drive by NHS England to reach the majority of those deemed top priority by the end of January.
Latest figures show 786,000 people have received a Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 jab between December 8 and Sunday December 27, NHS England said.