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Boris Johnson's claim that "your tier is not your destiny" was dramatically undermined minutes later by his chief medical officer.
The PM claimed that areas could well move down the tier system, which kicks in on December 3 and puts 99% of England in the top two brackets.
But Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty suggested this may be fantasy as he said Tier 2 will be enough to "hold the line" but not "reliably bring down cases".
Mr Johnson told a Downing Street press conference that "every area has the means of escape" from the top levels of restrictions.
He said he was "sorry" about about the pain inflicted on businesses and residents when they move into Tier 2 and 3 areas next week.
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But the PM added: "If we ease off now, we risk losing control over this virus all over again, casting aside our hard-won gains and forcing us back into a New Year national lockdown with all the damage that would mean."
However his comments were slightly contradicted by Professor Whitty.
On the potential effectiveness of the measures, hee said: "Tier 2 looks as if it's strong enough to hold the line, so stop things rising, but not reliably to pull things down.
"Tier 3 we think based on previous experiences is strong enough to pull things down from a higher peak."
Professor Whitty also admitted that Tier 1 restrictions, the lightest measures which will be applied in only three areas – the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – could lead to an increase in infections.
At the Downing Street press conference on Thursday, he said: "Tier 1, which is very similar to the previous Tier 1, slowed things down but did not stop the rise anywhere.
"So the reason why Tier 1 at this time of year, with the current measures we currently got before we have any vaccines, is relatively limited, is almost certainly anywhere going into Tier 1 will rise and the only places that are there are places with very low rates at the moment."
Professor Whitty, who also advised people not to hug elderly relatives at Christmas, said he would hope that "in some months to come, possibly in some weeks to come, we'll be in a situation where more places could go into Tier 1".
"But we should not do that until we're confident because the experience of Tier 1 previously was, and it hasn't really changed, is that if you're in Tier 1, the rate starts to go up."
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Large swathes of the Midlands, North East and North West are in the most restrictive Tier 3, but the majority of people – including London – will be in Tier 2.
Mark Harper, the former Conservative chief whip, expressed scepticism about the Prime Minister's claim that "your tier is not your destiny", amid a widespread expected revolt among Tory MPs to the new system when it gets put to a Commons vote.
Mr Harper tweeted: "Unfortunately, just after the PM said this, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said Tier 2 would only hold infections level, and Tier 1 would see them go up.
"That rather suggests if you're in Tier 2, it is your destiny – at least until the spring."
The Prime Minister insisted that areas would be able to move down the tiers if cases fall
(Image: POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
The Prime Minister also insisted it was right to return to the tier system because it had been shown to have an impact when used last time.
He said: "The tiered approach was delivering, it was slowing the virus down and that's why a tiered, reasonable approach is the right way to go now."
However, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said the previous tier system did not manage to decrease the infection rate enough.
At the press conference, he said: "The message is that the tiers worked in terms of slowing but didn't work in terms of flattening and reversing it.
"The national lockdown looks as if it has flattened it and is sending it downwards and it is important we do bring it down because numbers remain high."
Sir Patrick said one in 85 people in the country have coronavirus at the moment, numbers which he said were "very high".