Matt Hancock today refused to rule out a third national lockdown as he faces mounting calls to act now to curb coronavirus.
The Health Secretary said “we don’t rule anything out” as Labour told Boris Johnson to impose new curbs today.
“We are prepared to move quickly and take whatever action is necessary,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
But he refused to say when action would be taken, despite Keir Starmer demanding national restrictions by this afternoon.
A No10 source denied reports that Boris Johnson would host a meeting of the Covid-O committee today to consider further restrictions. However, other ministerial meetings are taking place.
It came as the UK death toll rose by 454 yesterday to 75,024. There were another 54,990 cases as a new variant surges.
The Prime Minister warned yesterday that curbs were “probably about to get tougher”. But Sir Keir said: “Let’s not have the Prime Minister saying, ‘I’m going to do it, but not yet’.
“That’s the problem he has made so many times. Nationwide lockdown, the Prime Minister has hinted that’s going to happen but he’s delaying again, and we can’t afford that again.”
It is not clear exactly what extra restrictions would be put in place in a national lockdown.
Some 78% of England is already under Tier 4 rules – which are the same as the November lockdown.
Tier 4 shuts pubs, non-essential shops, hairdressers and gyms, and bans social gatherings between households indoors or outdoors – but keeps schools open.
SAGE have warned Tier 4 on its own, without shutting schools, is no longer enough to keep the R number below 1 due to the new variant.
Primary schools are already not opening as planned today in around 60 council areas – and several more have defied government advice and told children to stay at home.
It’s understood more schools could be formally told they can shut in the coming days by the government. But that might still stop short of March, when all schools opened only to vulnerable or key workers’ children.
Mr Hancock also indicated more of the 22% areas that are still in Tier 3 will be put into Tier 4. “The fastest rises are in the Tier 3 areas,” he told ITV.
And he refused to rule out tougher guidance for vulnerable people who were shielding back in March.
“Clearly more action is going to be needed,” he told the BBC. “Absolutely we are prepared to bring in tougher rules if they are needed on the public health advice.
“There is very worrying data showing the virus continues to spread.”
Asked by Sky News if he ruled out a third national lockdown he said: “We don’t rule anything out, and we’ve shown repeatedly that we will look at the public health advice and we will take the public health advice in terms of what is needed to control the spread of the disease.
“This new variant is much easier to catch, it is much more transmissible, and we’re now seeing the effect of that in lots of different parts of the country, unfortunately.
“And it means that whereas the old Tier 3 was able to contain the old variant, that is proving increasingly difficult in all parts of the country.”
Labour are calling for Mr Johnson to “consider” all measures used in March but have stopped short of saying all schools must shut.
Mr Hancock also appeared to blame the public for the surging virus.
Asked whether Tier 4 restrictions work, Mr Hancock said: “It is down to people’s behaviour, frankly. What matters is, yes of course, the rules that we put in place, but it is also about how people act.
“And frankly what I would say is this: it is critical that everybody in the country does all that they can to reduce the spread of the virus.”
Asked if mixed government messaging was responsible for people not following the rules, he told BBC Radio 4: “There is no excuse for behaving irresponsibly in the face of such a difficult virus to control.”
He later insisted: “This isn’t about blame, it’s about how we collectively as a society keep this under control for the next couple of months.”