Tough new coronavirus restrictions may have to remain in place until March, senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove warned, as England enters its third national lockdown. In a televised address on Monday, Boris Johnson announced stringent new controls – including closing schools to most pupils – in an attempt to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by a surge in new infections.
At the same time, the Prime Minister raised the prospect that the vaccination programme being rolled out across the country could enable restrictions to be progressively eased from mid-February.
But, in a round of broadcast interviews on Tuesday morning, Mr Gove said relaxation of the rules may have to wait until the following month – and that even then some measures may have to remain in place.
“We will keep these constantly under review, but we can’t predict with certainty that we will be able to lift restrictions in the week commencing February 15-22,” he said.
“What we will be doing is everything that we can to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated, so that we can begin to progressively lift restrictions.
“I think it is right to say that, as we enter March, we should be able to lift some of these restrictions, but not necessarily all.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, meanwhile, unveiled a fresh £4.6 billion support package for businesses across the UK dealt a further crippling blow by enforced closures.
It includes one-off top-up grants worth up to £9,000 for firms in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors to help nurse them through to the spring.
Mr Johnson’s announcement came after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed a lockdown on Scotland for the rest of January, with a legal requirement to stay at home and schools closed to most pupils until February.
Schools and colleges in Wales will also remain closed until at least January 18 and move to online learning, while in Northern Ireland – which is already under a six-week lockdown – “stay at home” restrictions will be brought back into law and a period of remote learning for schoolchildren will be extended.
The Stormont Executive is meeting on Tuesday to confirm details of the plan, which could run beyond January.
In his address, Mr Johnson warned the coming weeks will be the “hardest yet” but said that “with a fair wind in our sails” it should be possible to vaccinate 13 million of the most vulnerable people by mid-February, paving the way for controls to be eased.
The Prime Minister had previously strongly resisted calls to delay the reopening of primary schools in particular following the Christmas break – despite pressure from the teaching unions.
Mr Gove said they had been forced to act with a “heavy heart” after the chief medical officers of the four nations warned there was a danger the NHS would be overwhelmed by the surge in infections caused by the new variant of Covid-19.
“In the circumstances we felt that the only thing we could do was to close those primary schools that were open,” he said.
With the Government acknowledging that exams in England will not be able to go ahead as planned in the summer, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will address a recalled House of Commons on Wednesday to update MPs on how pupils will be assessed.
With MPs due to debate the new restrictions on Wednesday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer confirmed his party would support the Government.
He warned however that meeting Mr Johnson’s target of vaccinating 13 million people by mid-February – including all over-70s – would not be easy.
“That’s the ambition of the Prime Minister. I hope he is not overpromising. It’s going to be a struggle and we need to make this work,” he said.
Meanwhile, some doctors and scientists expressed concern that the latest measures would still not be enough to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.
Dr Claudia Paoloni, chairwoman of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, said : “We’re now in a situation where the risk of overwhelming the NHS at this point, over the next few weeks, is very, very high.”
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was important to learn lessons from the first wave of the pandemic.
“I think the lockdown announced yesterday will clearly save tens of thousands of lives. The threat we’re facing is at least as bad as we were back in March,” he told the Today programme.
“I think the virus is different and it may be that the lockdown measures we had are not enough, so we need to learn from the new insights and new technologies, we need to learn from the last lockdown and particularly some of the things we saw.”