Ministers believe at least 20 million people will need to be vaccinated before any significant relaxing of the measures
Tier 4 restrictions could be toughened further and remain in place until close to Easter, Government sources have admitted.
Ministers believe at least 20 million people will need to have been vaccinated against coronavirus before any significant relaxing of the measures can be considered, it is understood.
Matt Hancock said on Sunday that Britain faces a “very difficult” few months, warning that the spread of the virus across swathes of England is now “out of control”.
He also refused to rule out closing schools for the first time since the original spring lockdown.
Police chiefs warned that the ban on people getting together for Christmas in Tier 4 is "unenforceable" despite stepping up patrols at rail stations and on borders to stop the spread of the new strain of the virus.
Retailers extended or changed their returns policies on Sunday for customers who may be forced to hold onto unwanted Christmas presents for months due to store closures.
Senior Tories called for Boris Johnson to set out a clear exit strategy, but Downing Street once again suggested it would not be possible to do so.
Mr. Johnson even faced accusations of deliberately sending MPs home for Parliamentary recess so they could not vote on the introduction of Tier 4 and the cancellation of the Christmas holiday. Furious Tory backbenchers demanded the recall of Parliament.
On Sunday, daily cases across the UK were the highest on record, with 35,928 cases – a jump of 51 per cent in one week, fuelled by a more infectious mutation.
Whitehall sources said Tier 4 “stay at home” orders, now covering nearly 17 million people in London and parts of East and South East England may stay in place for months until most over the 50s have received the vaccine. Other areas could be hit by such restrictions – even before Christmas – if the new variant fuels spikes elsewhere, while a full national lockdown could not be ruled out. On Sunday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the Prime Minister of “gross negligence” and failing to make tough decisions until the 11th hour, because he “simply doesn't want to be unpopular”.
Defending the Government’s actions this weekend, which forced the cancellation of Christmas plans for families across the country, the Health Secretary said ministers had responded “quickly and decisively” to new information. While saying Britain was “not necessarily” facing a full lockdown, Mr Hancock suggested harsh measures could remain imposed on swathes of the country for months. "The new variant is out of control and we need to bring it under control," he told BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show. "We don't know how long these measures are going to be in place. It may be for some time until we can get the vaccine going." “In the meantime, we have a few months that are going to be very difficult,” he said, urging people to take “personal responsibility” to limit social contact, and describing those fleeing London on Saturday night as “totally irresponsible”. “It is going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out,” he said. Mr Hancock confirmed that by the end of the weekend, around half a million people should have received their first dose of the Covid jab, developed by Pfizer. This week more than 500 GP hubs and 83 hospitals will take part in the roll-out, with roving teams sent into care homes. A second vaccine, made by Astra Zeneca, is expected to get the green light from regulators next week, which ministers hope will speed up the programme with mass vaccination clinics due to open in football stadia from the first week of January. This could see several million doses administered weekly, Government sources have said, but even this timescale could mean Britain remains under heavy restrictions until March. One said: “It is going to be a very difficult few months, the quicker we can roll-out the vaccine the better. “Essentially we are looking at spring as the time when we can move out of this difficult place we’re in – something like March, the point at which everyone in the ‘at risk’ groups has been offered the vaccine.” The category covers everyone over the age of 50, as well as younger people with underlying health conditions.
He said it was impossible to rule out even stronger restrictions – such as a full national lockdown, but stressed that ministers were keen to keep to the “tiered” approach if possible. Another Government source said the current approach may see other areas – particularly those now under Tier 3 – placed under heavier restrictions. And he said action could happen ahead of Christmas, though ministers hope to defer further moves until the formal review of the tiers on December 30. Minutes from the committee’s meeting last Friday revealed that cases of the new mutation of Covid – called VUI-202012/01 – grew “exponentially” during the November lockdown. On Sunday, as the number of daily cases reached a record high, Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England said: “This sharp and sudden increase is of serious concern” with most of the new cases concentrated in London and the South East. Officials confirmed that the new variant had spread in small numbers to every part of England, as well as to Wales and Scotland. Professor Paul Hunter, a professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it was “inevitable” that the new strain would spread throughout the UK, warning of case rises being seen in parts of the South West and Midlands. Mr Hancock refused to confirm that schools in Tier 4 areas would reopen in January if cases continue to rise. Writing in Monday’s Telegraph, Gavin Williamson would only say “there are no plans for schools to close". The Prime Minister will obey his own rules by spending Christmas Day in Downing Street, a spokesperson said. Travelling to the Prime Minister’s official retreat, Chequers, would have involved making a non-essential journey, in contravention of the guidelines.