One-in-50 people in England had COVID-19 last week, according to new figures cited by UK PM Boris Johnson at a press conference on Tuesday.
The Office for National Statistics estimates 1.1 million people in England's private households had the virus between 27 December and 2 January.
The revelation came after the country posted a new daily high for COVID cases - 60,916. It's the first time the total has exceeded 60,000.
A new nationwide lockdown is set to take effect at midnight on Tuesday and comes at a complicated point during the pandemic.
Chief Medical Officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty said on Tuesday the new variant was "taking off" in areas outside London and the South East, where it has been found to be prominent.
The number of COVID patients in English hospitals is at highest ever, he added, despite "remarkable efforts" from the public in summer, which led to a reduction in COVID patients during the summer.
This number is now "going up very rapidly," he cautioned.
Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday that he hoped restrictions could be lifted by mid-February and said that by then, "there will be substantial opportunities to relax the restrictions that we face".
Johnson said that reopening schools would be the government's top priority.
"The faster we can get through this period, the bigger the bounce back will be," Johnson said.
"We need to make sure it’s the last," opposition leader Keir Starmer said of the lockdown, telling the government they needed to use "this latest lockdown" to support families and businesses while getting the vaccine rolled out as quickly as possible.
Johnson tried to strike a more positive chord, saying 1.1 million people in England had been vaccinated and 1.3 million across the UK.
When asked about the UK's shift in strategy to prioritising giving one dose of the vaccine to as many at-risk people as possible, rather than providing the required two doses in as short a time as possible, he said: "If we had infinite vaccines, we might've taken a different approach."
He said the level of risk to society had been considered and this approach had been chosen because this "is a very fast-moving virus at this point in time".
Johnson told the Commons on Wednesday that the goal was to vaccinate everyone in the top four priority groups by mid-February including all NHS staff and everyone over 70.
Whitty said he hoped the UK would eventually have a vaccination programme that did the "heavy lifting" against the pandemic, with no measures in place for spring, summer and autumn.
But he warned the coronavirus "isn't a problem that just disappears", citing the example of the flu, which poses a threat to vulnerable people each winter.
It also comes after the announcement on Monday that England will enter its third national lockdown since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
The situation in the country is such that there is a "risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed" and should therefore be moved to the highest COVID alert level of 5 from 4, the chief medical officers of the UK have advised.
Surging cases of the virus and a heavy burden on health services require extremely strict social distancing, they added.
Schools in England will be closed until at mid-February at the earliest and the lockdown will be in force for at least seven weeks, with measures to be reviewed during what would have been the week of the half-term holiday.
The Scottish mainland has also been put under a full lockdown for the whole of January and schools in Wales will be closed until at least January 18.
The UK is experiencing a spike in the number of new daily reported cases of COVID-19, on Monday recording its highest daily total since pandemic started at 58,784.
It inforced new tighter restrictions in the lead up to Christmas after a new variant of coronavirus was found to be circulating in parts of England, with Health Secretary Matt Hancock saying at the time that it was "out of control".