Boris Johnson has raised the prospect of a New Year lockdown if Britons ease off in the fight against coronavirus – as his chief medic warned people not to hug elderly relatives at Christmas.

England is due to exit its second national lockdown next Wednesday and the prime minister, speaking at a Downing Street news conference, said his aim now was to avoid “taking our foot off the throat of the beast”.

“If we ease off now we risk losing control of this virus all over again, casting aside our hard-won gains and forcing us back to a New Year national lockdown with all the damage that would mean,” he said.

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‘How are you going to test 40% of England?’

Mr Johnson said the “tough measures” in his new three-tiered system of localised restrictions would be the “best way to avoid this outcome”.

Some restrictions will be relaxed even further during a five-day period over Christmas.

But England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, urged people to avoid physical contact with grandparents or other elderly relatives.

He said: “Would I encourage someone to hug and kiss their elderly relatives? No I would not.

“It’s not against the law – and that’s the whole point – you can do it within the rules that are there, but it does not make sense because you could be carrying the virus.

“And, if you’ve got an elderly relative, that would not be the thing you would want to do in a period where we’re running up to a point where, actually, we might be able to protect older people.”

The prime minister suggested he is allowing more relaxed measures between 23 and 27 December because people might have ignored more stringent rules anyway.

“It is an incredibly difficult decision,” he said.

“You’ve got to strike a balance between people’s strong desire to celebrate a family holiday, perhaps one of the most important family holidays of the year – which they frankly are going to do anyway – and the need to keep the virus under control.”

Under England’s new system of localised restrictions, 99% of the country’s population will enter the toughest two tiers.

But Mr Johnson told the public: “Your tier is not your destiny, every area has the means of escape.”

The prime minister signalled that mass testing would offer a route out of the highest Tier 3, as he praised a recent pilot scheme in Liverpool, which will go into Tier 2 from next Wednesday.

It means the city is one of only two places in England to experience eased restrictions from 2 December – by moving from Tier 3 of the system that preceded the national lockdown.

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Asked whether the entire British Army would have to be deployed to deliver mass testing to the 40% of England’s population that is in Tier 3, Mr Johnson replied: “We’ll give the help and support of the armed services, the army, where necessary.

“But it will also take local leadership and local communities coming together to get those lateral flow tests out.

“Parts of the country and various towns are already coming forward saying they want to do what Liverpool has already done.

“But it depends very much on communities coming together, local leaders saying they want to do it. Because it’s not something that we want to be imposing. You can’t compel people to take a test.

“People need to understand this is the way forward both for themselves and for their communities.”

Prof Whitty said he expected, should a COVID vaccine be approved, that parts of the country could move down the tiered system of restrictions.

However, he admitted that – at the moment – Tier 1 restrictions were not expected to be strong enough to prevent a rise in infections.

There are around 14,000 troops on standby ready to help deliver the government’s coronavirus plans this winter, including specialist planners, medic and logistics experts.

A government spokesperson said: “From next week, local authorities that fall into Tier 3 will be able to apply for support from NHS Test and Trace and the Armed Forces to deliver a six-week rapid community testing programme.

“This includes access to lateral flow tests and planning, logistics, funding and communications support.”

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