Coronavirus: New strain ‘significantly more risky’ says expert
But the Health Secretary said the lockdown was working and suppressing infections, while the vaccination rollout was speeding ahead with nearly 80 per cent of over-80s given jabs. He acknowledged the public “yearning” for measures to be lifted but warned that the NHS was still under huge pressure. Mr Hancock said: “This is not a moment to ease up. The success of the vaccine rollout means we cannot put this progress at risk.
“There is a promise of better days that lie ahead. We have to hold our nerve and persevere through this difficult winter.”
Boris Johnson said the Government will begin “looking at the potential of relaxing some measures” before mid-February but refused to guarantee schools would be back before Easter.
The pleas for patience from the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary came as at least 17 rebel Tory MPs openly backed a campaign for schools to fully reopen as soon as possible.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to face an urgent Commons question today about the plan for reopening classrooms following hints from ministers schools could stay shut until after the Easter holidays at the earliest.
Mr Hancock appealed for caution during a Downing Street news conference yesterday.
He said: “It’s so important to understand where we are right now. Right now we have 37,000 in hospital with coronavirus, that is almost twice as many as at the first peak back in April when there were 19,000 at the highest.
“And there are more people on ventilators than at any time in this whole pandemic, so the pressure on the NHS remains huge and we’ve got to get that case rate down.
“But of course I understand the yearning people have to get out of this.
“We have to look at the facts on the ground and we have to monitor those facts.”
Ministers are already working on a plan to return to the system of regional tiered restrictions to replace the lockdown, he said.
Mr Hancock added: “There are early signs that the actions we are taking are working. The rise in the number of cases is slowing and falling in some parts of the country, like London and Scotland.
“At the same time, the number of vaccinations is going up.”
Matt Hancock says this isn’t the moment to ease lockdown
Putting a timeline on the lifting of lockdown restrictions was “difficult” because decisions had to be based on changing scientific data, he said.
He also confirmed the vaccine programme was “on track” to vaccinate the 14 million people in the top priority groups by the middle of next month.
The Health Secretary added: “As of today, 6.6 million have received a vaccine against Covid-19. That is more than one in nine of the adult population.
“On Saturday alone, we gave nearly half a million jabs. And in the past week 2.5 million people have been vaccinated across the UK. That’s a rate of more than 250 people a minute.
“We’re on track to offer a jab to everyone in the top four priority groups by February 15. I’m very proud to be able to tell you that as of last night we have vaccinated 78.7 per cent of all over-80s.”
Earlier yesterday, the PM insisted the Government did not want to “throw away” the advances made against the pandemic by rushing to lift restrictions.
Mr Johnson said: “Now this massive achievement has been made of rolling out this vaccination programme, I think people want to see us making sure we don’t throw that away by having a premature relaxation and then another big surge of infections. I totally understand the frustrations of parents. I really thank teachers for what they’re doing.
“Believe me, there’s nothing I want to do more than reopen schools. I’ve fought to keep schools open for as long as I possibly could.
“We want to see schools back as fast as possible. We want to do that in a way that is consistent with fighting the epidemic and keeping the infection rate down.”
Asked if he could give a firm date for schools to reopen, Mr Johnson said: “Daily we’re looking at the data and trying to work out when we’re going to be able to lift restrictions.
“Schools obviously will be a priority but I don’t think anybody would want to see the restrictions lifted so quickly while the rate of infection is still very high so as to lead to another great spread of infections.”
The number of vaccinations in the UK is going up
Mr Johnson was speaking during a visit to a vaccination site in Barnet, north London.
Six more Tory MPs yesterday joined 11 other colleagues backing a campaign by the pressure group UsforThem calling for schools to fully reopen.
Backbencher Pauline Latham, who added her support to the campaign yesterday, said: “We need a roadmap out of school closures and fast. This cannot continue.”
Labour yesterday tabled a Commons urgent question calling for the Education Secretary to make a statement on “the Government’s plan for the reopening of educational settings”.
Robert Halfon, Tory chairman of the Commons Education Committee, said: “I want the engine of Government to be directed towards opening our schools again.
“For the Government to place as much importance on schools and colleges as they do on the economy and the National Health Service.”
Officials said a further 592 people had died within 28 days of testing positive by yesterday, bringing the UK total to 98,531.