The government could bring in even tighter coronavirus measures for England within 24 hours, Matt Hancock has indicated, saying the NHS is “under significant pressure” from fast-rising case numbers across the country.
The health secretary defended the government’s decision to keep open many schools in England, which is being defied by many councils and parents, saying closing schools was “an absolute last resort due to all the negative impacts of that decision.”
It comes as a joint statement from six unions representing teachers and other school staff condemned the “chaotic handling” of the reopening of schools after Christmas, with some parents only learning what would happen with their children’s school on Sunday evening.
But Hancock rejected accusations that the government was again acting too slowly to curb the spread of Covid-19, now being accelerated by the arrival of a new, more easily transmissible variant.
“We have moved incredibly fast to take action when necessary, including on Boxing Day, so we don’t shy away from decisions, difficult as they are,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We have shown that we’re prepared to move incredibly quickly, within 24 hours if we think that is necessary. And we keep these things under review all the time.”
Hancock indicated that one immediate move could be to shift more areas still under the previous highest level of Covid restrictions, tier 3, to the newer level of tier 4, under which most shops are also closed.
Asked whether the government could act within 24 hours, Hancock said: “We look at the data on a daily basis, and we can see at the moment there are significant rises, especially in the areas that are still in tier 3.
“But I also come back to this broader point, that it’s on all of us. The thing that stops the spread of the disease is people not coming into contact with other people. That is the sad truth of it.”
Labour has called for a full national lockdown for England with immediate effect, citing the scale of increase in coronavirus case numbers, and the resultant impact in terms of hospital admissions and deaths.
While Hancock accepted it was “right to say the NHS is under significant pressure”, he said this was not necessarily greater than during the first Covid peak in spring, as although numbers in hospital were greater, there was also increased capacity.
Speaking shortly after an 82-year-old man became the first person in the world to receive the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine outside clinical trials, Hancock said he was “incredibly worried” about another variant of the virus, seemingly originating in South Africa, which some scientists have warned could be resistant to current vaccines.
But in another interview with Sky News, Hancock said the use of the new vaccine marked “a real pivotal moment” in efforts to combat Covid.
The government faces intense pressure over schools, with the joint statement from unions saying the current plan “is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic.”
The statement said: “The government’s chaotic handling of the opening of schools has caused confusion for teachers, school staff and parents alike.”
But speaking to Sky, Hancock said: “It is clear that the proportion of teachers who catch coronavirus is no higher than the rest of the population.
“So there is clear public health advice behind the position that we take and that is what people should follow because, of course, education is very important as well, especially for people’s long-term health.”
Labour’s shadow education secretary, Kate Green, told Today that tougher government action was needed.
“It is very clear that the government has lost control of the virus, we’re seeing a really alarming rise in cases and in the spread of the infection,” she said.