England’s third national lockdown could drag on from the end of February into March, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has admitted.
When Boris Johnson announced the lockdown last night he had suggested it could end as early as February 15, but that date appeared to change this morning.
Speaking on Sky News, Mr Gove warned that the country was in for a “very difficult” few weeks and could give no firm date for lifting the lockdown.
He told Sky News: “The Government is doing everything it can in order to ensure that we can roll out the vaccine more rapidly, help the vulnerable by getting the inoculations they need and make sure that at the end of what will inevitably be very, very difficult weeks, that life can eventually return to normal.”
Pressed on whether the lockdown was likely to last until March, Mr Gove added: “We will be able to review the progress that we’ve made on February 15, just before the traditional school half-term, and we hope that we will be able to progressively lift restrictions after that but what I can’t do is predict – nobody can predict – with accuracy exactly what we will be able to relax and when.
“What we do know is that the more effective our vaccination programme, the more people who are protected in that way, the easier it will be to lift these restrictions.”
He added: “I think it’s right to say that as we enter March, we should be able to lift some of these restrictions but not necessarily all.”
Mr Gove confirmed that Chancellor Rishi Sunak will also unveil support packages for businesses later today.
Last night, Mr Johnson shut schools to most pupils and imposed the toughest restrictions since March in an attempt to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by surging coronavirus infections.
In a televised address to the nation on Monday evening, the Prime Minister pinned hopes on the rollout of vaccines to ease the restrictions in mid-February.
He ordered the country to stay indoors other than for limited exceptions and bowed to significant pressure to order primary schools, secondaries and colleges to move to remote teaching for the majority of students from Tuesday.
His move followed Nicola Sturgeon imposing 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 is to be extended.
In a bleak statement, Mr Johnson said the new variant of coronavirus, which is up to 70% more transmissible, was spreading in a “frustrating and alarming” manner and warned that the number of Covid-19 patients in English hospitals is 40% higher than the first peak.
“The weeks ahead will be the hardest yet but I really do believe that we’re entering the last phase of the struggle, because with every jab that goes into our arms we’re tilting the odds against Covid and in favour of the British people,” the Prime Minister said.
He said people in the top four priority groups would be offered a first vaccine dose by mid-February “if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails”, to allow restrictions to be eased.
It is thought that measures are unlikely to be relaxed until around 13 million people aged over 70 or classed as extremely clinically vulnerable have received the vaccine and been given enough time to be protected – about two to three weeks after getting the jab.
When asked on BBC Breakfast on Tuesday if the new restrictions were what he had in mind when he called for another lockdown, he said: “Yes, it is what we had in mind and we will back it.
“It was inevitable we needed a national set of restrictions. That’s why I called for it.”
He said that it was now a race against time to ramp up the national vaccination programme.
“We are in a race against time now. We have got a contract with the British people to say these are tough restrictions, in return for that the Government has got to roll out the vaccination programme at speed and accelerate that.
“This is a huge challenge and I think we need to pull together.”