The third national lockdown imposed in England to try to deal with the huge increase in Covid-19 cases is likely to remain in place into March at least, with some measures lasting even longer, the government has indicated.
The cabinet secretary, Michael Gove, said he hoped the gradual lifting of restrictions could begin in mid-February, but that the time it took for the vaccines to take effect meant it was likely to be at least another couple of weeks before measures could start to be eased.
“We can’t predict with certainty that we’ll be able to lift restrictions the week commencing the 15 to 22 [February], what we will be doing is everything we can to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated so that we can begin progressively to lift restrictions,” Gove told Sky News on Tuesday.
“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.”
England was placed under a renewed national lockdown – with the most severe restrictions since last March – on Monday. Announcing the measures, Boris Johnson warned that the weeks ahead would be the “hardest yet”.
The prime minister said that closing schools and non-essential businesses and telling people to stay in their homes was necessary to deal with the new variant of the virus.
But ministers have been unable to explain why they waited until some children were already back in the classroom to make the announcement, having insisted only hours earlier that it was safe for them to be there.
And, speaking on Tuesday morning, Gove admitted that ministers had waited until the very last moment, only imposing the restrictions when they had no other choice. He told Sky News: “Closing schools is really the very last resort. None of us wanted to do it. We all know why it’s so important that the children get the best possible education they can.
“But the chief medical officers of all parts of the United Kingdom judged yesterday that we needed to move to level five – the most severe level of alert against this infection. And, faced with that news yesterday, we were left with no alternative other than to take every step that we possibly could.”
Keir Starmer has said he would back England’s new national lockdown. On Tuesday, the Labour leader told BBC Breakfast: “It was inevitable we needed a national set of restrictions. That’s why I called for it.”
He called for a return to the spirit of last March, saying it was now a race against time to ramp up the national vaccination programme. “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.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said he wanted to see a “vaccination centre on every high street”, adding: “The prime minister said seven weeks – that’s to allow the vaccination programme to be rolled out for 13 to 14 million people … I hope he is not overpromising.”
Gove admitted it was unlikely all 14 million would receive the vaccine in time, while hinting that restrictions would remain in place until they did.