UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce a new national lockdown next week after scientists warned Covid-19 was spreading faster than their worst predictions.
Johnson spent Friday (Saturday NZT) in crisis meetings with ministers and aides after being told deaths were tracking above the "worst case scenario" that suggested 85,000 in the second wave.
Johnson is understood to have been persuaded that a national lockdown is the only way to save Christmas, and will spend the weekend contemplating exactly how severe it should be.
Senior government sources stressed that no final decision had been made and the measure would need to be put to the Cabinet before any announcement to the nation.
Johnson is likely to summon ministers from his Cabinet coronavirus subcommittee over the next 48 hours and could hold a full meeting on Sunday if he decides he needs to act as soon as Monday.
The alternative to a national lockdown would be a fourth tier of restrictions on top of the existing three-tier system, but government scientists now believe even Tier 3 is not enough to stop the spread of infections.
Imposing a second national lockdown would be a bitter blow for the Prime Minister, who has insisted for months he did not believe such a move would be necessary.
He described it as a "nuclear option" and warned that it would be an economic "disaster". Last month, he told MPs that restrictions would be "completely wrong for the country".
But government scientific advisers told him that by October 14 deaths had already reached daily levels predicted in their worst case scenario planning and would exceed their most pessimistic predictions by the end of the month.
The Prime Minister met the Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock in Downing Street on Friday to discuss the next steps.
The ministers discussed closing down all but essential retailers and schools, with universities and nurseries also staying open.
If Johnson decides to announce the measures at a press conference on Monday, they could come into force on Wednesday and last until December 1.
Such a move would meet vehement opposition from many Tory MPs who have insisted that the economy must be protected.
Many retailers make the bulk of their profits in the run-up to Christmas and a month-long lockdown could be the death knell for many businesses already struggling to break even.
Another 24,405 people tested positive in the UK for coronavirus on Friday, with 274 deaths. The Office for National Statistics said cases "continue to rise steeply".
Belgium became the latest European country to announce a second lockdown on Friday, in line with France and Germany.
One Cabinet minister said: "When you look at what's happening in France we might have to adapt the tier system and add extra restrictions. The Cabinet is pretty united on this – we don't want to see a national lockdown because a circuit breaker is not the answer, but we realise we might have to get tougher in the areas where the infections are highest."
Johnson believes the public is ready to accept tougher restrictions.
Another Cabinet minister said: "The polling shows that the public are already there – they know this is going to be difficult for a while and they are supportive of the measures."
To date, 10.6 million people in England have been placed into Tier 3, with another 10.6 million in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales living under similar or harsher measures.
New documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) show that by October 14, deaths had reached reasonable worst case scenario levels and were likely to exceed them by the end of the month.
Modelling leaked to The Spectator earlier this week showed that the Government expects up to 85,000 deaths in the second wave, but the death toll may now be higher without widespread restrictions, scientists have warned.
Discussions are ongoing about whether the harsher restrictions would be referred to as Tier 4 or "Tier 3 plus".