Matt Hancock today warned the new mutant strain of coronavirus is ‘out of control’ as he suggested draconian Tier 4 restrictions could be in place ‘until we have the vaccine rolled out’.
The Health Secretary said people in Tier 4 areas should behave as if they are infected in order to combat the new variant of the disease which spreads quicker than its predecessor.
Mr Hancock said the new strain can be caught ‘more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present’ as he confirmed areas subject to the toughest restrictions are likely to be in the top tier for the long haul.
The Cabinet minister said ‘we have got a long way to go to sort this’ and it will be ‘very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out’.
His comments came after furious Tory MPs demanded Cabinet resignations after Boris Johnson effectively cancelled Christmas for 16million people across England.
The Prime Minister announced yesterday afternoon that London, the South East and the East of England were being moved into the new Tier 4 of curbs to combat a surge in infections.
The move sparked anger among Conservative MPs who have opposed the Government’s coronavirus strategy.
Tory MPs claimed the constantly changing approach to tackling the disease should result in ministers stepping down as they said the Government must publish a ‘clear exit strategy from this nightmarish, cycle of damaging lockdowns and restrictions’.
They also want ministers to recall Parliament from its Christmas break to allow MPs and peers to vote on the new restrictions ‘at the earliest opportunity’.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that the new strain of coronavirus is ‘out of control’ in Tier 4 areas of England
Mr Hancock told Sophy Ridge on Sky News: ‘We don’t want to do any of this but it is necessary. This has been an awful end to what has been an incredibly difficult year and on Friday when we were presented with that new scientific evidence about the new variant it was our duty to act.
‘From being presented on Friday afternoon with the strength of how easy this new variant finds it to transmit from one human to another, we acted very quickly and decisively with the announcements that the Prime Minister set out yesterday.
‘I just think everybody watching will feel this sense that we both feel of disappointment and that it is just so difficult ahead of Christmas, which everybody was really looking forward to after all the sacrifices that have been made.
‘But unfortunately this virus, the new strain, was out of control. We have got to get it under control and the way that we can do that, the only way you can do that, is by restricting social contact and essentially, especially in Tier 4 areas, everybody needs to behave as if they might well have the virus and that is the way that we can get it under control and keep people safe.’
The Health Secretary said the new variant of the disease was more easily transmitted than its predecessor which left the Government with no choice but to act.
He said: ‘We just know that this new variant you can catch it more easily from a smaller amount of the virus being present.’
Mr Hancock said the increased risk posed by the new variant meant existing measures to combat the spread of the disease, like wearing face masks and social distancing, would have to be stepped up.
‘All of the different measures that we have in place, we need more of them to control the spread of the new variant than we did to control the spread of the old variant, that is the fundamental problem,’ he said.
The roll-out of coronavirus vaccines is now underway across the UK, with the Government hoping to give the jab to millions of vulnerable people by the Spring.
Mr Hancock suggested Tier 4 measures could be in place until the vaccine has been widely distributed, raising the prospect of millions of people being told to stay at home for months.
He said: ‘We have really got to get this under control and the cases in the Tier 4 areas… have absolutely rocketed in the last few days, last two weeks or so.
‘We have got a long way to go to sort this. Essentially we have got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe.’
He added: ‘I think that given how much faster this new variant spreads it is going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out.’
Addressing the nation yesterday during a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said people should ‘lift a glass to those who aren’t there’, knowing that celebrating Christmas apart this year meant there would be ‘a better chance that they’ll be there next year’.
Mr Johnson said he was taking the actions with a ‘heavy heart’, but the scientific evidence – suggesting the new strain was up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original variant – had left him with no other option.
Boris Johnson yesterday effectively cancelled Christmas for 16 million people in England as he announced tough new curbs to slow the spread of coronavirus
The crackdown reignited Conservative fury as Sir Charles Walker, the vice-chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, told The Sunday Telegraph: ‘Given that the Prime Minister is not going to resign, perhaps it is time for Matt Hancock to consider his position.’
Meanwhile, Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said the Government must develop an approach which avoids repeated lockdowns.
He said: ‘Lockdowns and increasingly severe tiered restrictions have failed in their goal of slowing the transmission of Covid. And now the Government is expecting people to sacrifice the chance to share Christmas with family, friends and loved ones, just a few days after promising the opposite.
‘If the Government wants the support of the public and Parliament, it must publish a clear exit strategy from this nightmarish, cycle of damaging lockdowns and restrictions.
‘As we deliver the vaccine to the most at risk groups around the country, the public needs to see how this will translate into a return to normal life, with restrictions being lifted at every stage, and a clear roadmap to all our freedoms being restored as soon as this work is done.
‘More immediately, given the 3 tier system and the initial Christmas household rules were expressly authorised by the House of Commons, these changes must also be put to a vote in the Commons at the earliest opportunity, even if that means a recall of the House.’
Mr Hancock said this morning that Parliament will not be recalled to vote on the measures but MPs will be given a say on them in January.
Under the new Tier 4 rules non-essential shops – as well as gyms, cinemas, casinos and hairdressers – have to stay shut and people are limited to meeting one other person from another household in an outdoor public space.
Those in Tier 4 were told they should not travel out of the region, while those outside were advised against visiting.
In the rest of England, Christmas easing has been severely curtailed, with households allowed to gather for just one day – Christmas Day itself – rather than the five days previously planned.
Scotland and Wales are also restricting Christmas ‘bubbles’ to a single day, while people in Northern Ireland have been asked to consider forming a bubble for Christmas Day only.
Wales has also mirrored the Tier 4 restrictions in England by bringing forward alert level four measures to Sunday, while Scotland has said its travel ban with the rest of the UK will now remain in place right throughout the festive period.
The new regulations creating a Tier 4 in England came into force at 7am on Sunday and will be laid before Parliament, which is in recess, on Monday.
The statutory instrument was made at 6am on Sunday, and must be approved by both the House of Commons and House of Lords within 28 days, otherwise the change to the law is reversed as per a process known as the ‘made affirmative procedure’.
People wait on the concourse at Paddington Station in London on Saturday as people scramble to get out of London before Tier 4 rules came into effect
Mr Johnson told the nation yesterday: ‘Without action the evidence suggests that infections would soar, hospitals would become overwhelmed and many thousands more would lose their lives.
‘Yes Christmas this year will be different, very different. We’re sacrificing the chance to see our loved ones this Christmas so that we have a better chance of protecting their lives, so that we can see them at future Christmases.’
Health chiefs welcomed the announcement of a shift to Tier 4 and the toughening of Christmas rules as they said it would save lives and help health services cope with ‘incredible demand’.
The dramatic move came after scientists on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) concluded the mutant strain identified by the Public Health England laboratories at Porton Down was spreading more quickly.
The Prime Minister was advised of the group’s conclusions at a meeting with ministers on the Covid O Committee on Friday evening, and the new regulations were signed off by the Cabinet in a conference call on Saturday.