The new strain of COVID-19 is out of control and people need to behave as if they already have the virus, especially in the new Tier 4 areas of England, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned.
He said everybody was looking forward to Christmas, but the new infectious and rapid-spreading mutant strain “was out of control” and the government had to act “quickly and decisively”.
The five-day Christmas bubble period has been reduced to just Christmas Day for England, Wales and Scotland – and scrapped completely for areas in England under new Tier 4 rules – but remains in Northern Ireland.
The new tough coronavirus measures affect those in London, most of the South East, and many areas of eastern England.
Mr Hancock told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “Everybody, particularly people in Tier 4 areas, needs to behave as if they might well have the virus – that is the only way we are going to get it under control.”
He said the country faces an “enormous challenge” controlling the new strain of COVID-19 and it is “more important now than ever” that people stick to the rules and reduce social contact “because this is deadly serious”.
“This is a deadly disease, we need to keep it under control, and it has been made more difficult by this new variant.”
And he said scenes of people queueing at train stations, rushing to leave London before the new measures came into force this morning, was “totally irresponsible behaviour”.
Asked why the prime minister announced the Christmas relaxation rules weeks ago, when there was a chance he would have to renege on his promise, he said: “Because we understand, I understand, how important Christmas is to people.
“I understand how people feel. I had to call my mum last night and say, ‘We are not going to see each other over Christmas’.”
He said ministers had no choice but to act – effectively cancelling Christmas for millions of people – after being presented with the new scientific evidence on Friday afternoon.
Mr Hancock said cases have “rocketed” during the last few days and warned keeping the new variant under control until a vaccine has been rolled out would be “very difficult”.
“As of 8 o’clock yesterday morning 350,000 people have been vaccinated. We plan by the end of the weekend to have something around the half-million mark.”
“So we can see the way out through this but it is going to be a difficult few months,” he added.
Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said concerns raised by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer about the Christmas rules were “dismissed, ridiculed by the prime minister, only to find yesterday that people have made plans over the last week that now lie in tatters with very little time to sort that out before Christmas”.
She told Ridge: “Over and over again we’ve seen the same pattern, a prime minister that rejects the evidence, who ridicules and mocks concerns, who dithers and delays and then ends up having to change his mind at the eleventh hour.
“It just cannot continue like this,” she added.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he supported new restrictions being placed on the capital but criticised the government’s “incompetent” handling of the pandemic and accused it of giving people “false hope” over Christmas.
Mr Khan told Sky’s Sophy Ridge: “The government accused us of trying to cancel Christmas. Now all this was conceivable. What people want is clarity – instead what we got was stop-start change, marching us up a hill, then marching us down, marching us back up the hill, then marching us down again.”
He said the capital had experienced “the worst year we’ve had since the Second World War”.
British Medical Association (BMA) council chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said the planned five-day Christmas relaxation had not followed the science on the new variant, which he said “was spreading week-on-week” when the five-day Christmas relaxation was announced by the PM.
He told Ridge: “Last Wednesday, before the new variant was announced, it was obvious that the infection was spreading at a dangerous level, the NHS was in a dangerous state, and again, the science wasn’t followed when in fact we should have reversed the Christmas relaxation rules.
“So whilst there is a new variant, we didn’t need the new variant to reverse this rule and the public could of course have been given greater notice, but there’s no doubt it was the right and necessary decision.”
There is fury among some Conservative MPs after weeks of growing backbench unrest over the return of more and more stringent controls.
Mr Hancock said MPs would vote on the new measures after the Christmas parliamentary recess in January.
The areas now in Tier 4 are:
- East of England (Bedford, Central Bedford, Milton Keynes, Luton, Peterborough, Hertfordshire, Essex excluding Colchester, Uttlesford and Tendring)
- London (all 32 boroughs and the City of London)
- Rother and Hastings
- Surrey (excluding Waverley)
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