Under fire for imposing an effective lockdown on more than 16 million people just days before Christmas, Matt Hancock said Saturday’s decision was taken speedily after new evidence showed the new strain was responsible for spiralling COVID cases.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson tore up plans on Saturday to allow three households to mix indoors for five days over the festive period, imposing new Tier 4 level curbs similar to a recent national lockdown on London and southeast England.
Hancock suggested the tougher measures – which require about a third of the population of England to stay at home except for essential reasons such as work – might stay in place until vaccinations become more widely available.
“We’ve got a long way to go to sort this,” Hancock told Sky News.
“Essentially we’ve got to get that vaccine rolled out to keep people safe. Given how much faster this new variant spreads, it’s going to be very difficult to keep it under control until we have the vaccine rolled out.”
Keir Starmer, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, said while he supported the new measures, “yet again the prime minister waited until the 11th hour to take this decision.
“The alarm bells have been ringing for weeks but the prime minister chose to ignore them … He told the country to go ahead and have a merry little Christmas … and yet three days later he tells millions of families to rip up those plans,” he told a news conference.
Ministers say the new strain, which has been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia, is up to 70% more transmissible than the original but that there is no evidence that it is more lethal or causes more severe illness.
Soon after Johnson told the nation of the changes, some in London headed for the capital’s train stations to try to travel to see relatives over Christmas, and there were scenes of crowding – something Hancock called “totally irresponsible”.
He also said the government acknowledged that the economic impact of the new measures would be “severe” after the Confederation of British Industry called them a “real kick in the teeth” for many businesses.
But speaking on the BBC, Hancock said a new national lockdown was “not necessarily” inevitable to stem the rise in cases.
“One of the reasons we brought in the strict travel movements in Tier 4 … is to try to stop this new variant from spreading,” he told the “Andrew Marr Show”.