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Millions face new UK virus restrictions

Millions of people in the UK have been facing tough new coronavirus restrictions with Scotland and Northern Ireland demanding tighter measures to try to halt a new variant of the virus that is believed to spread more quickly.

Meanwhile, the first cases of the UK’s new COVID-19 variant have now been detected in France and Spain.

In the UK, Northern Ireland went into a six-week lockdown on Saturday while restrictions in Wales that were relaxed for Christmas Day were also re-imposed.

The number of people under England’s top level of restrictions – Tier 4 – increased by six million on Saturday to 24 million overall, around 43% of England’s population. The region included London and many of its surrounding areas.

No indoor mixing of households is allowed, and only essential travel permitted.

Gyms, pools, hairdressers and stores selling non-essential goods have been ordered to close and pubs and restaurants can only do take outs.

Business groups say the restrictions will be economically devastating to their members.

Another 570 daily deaths from COVID-19 were reported, bringing Britain’s total death toll to 70,195, the second-worst death toll in Europe after Italy.

Britain also reported more than 32,700 new cases of the disease on Christmas Day.

Fears about the UK’s new variant have sparked a week of border chaos.

Around 1,000 British soldiers spent Christmas Day trying to clear a huge backlog of trucks stranded in southeast England after France briefly closed its border to the UK and demanded coronavirus tests from all drivers.

But Britain’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said on Saturday that more than 15,000 drivers had been tested and that the backlog at a testing site at Manston Airport would be cleared by Sunday morning. Only 36 positive tests had been reported, he said on Twitter.

Across the English Channel, the French public health agency has confirmed that a Frenchman living in England arrived in France on December 19 and tested positive for the new variant on Friday.

He has no symptoms and is isolating at his home in the central city of Tours.

Health authorities in the Madrid region of Spain said they had confirmed the UK variant in four people, all of whom are in good health.

Regional health chief Enrique Ruiz Escudero said the new strain had arrived when an infected person flew into Madrid’s airport.

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