Britain was on Tuesday warned to prepare for a long haul out of the Covid-19 crisis, as Boris Johnson revealed that 1m people in England now had the virus, representing one in 50 of the population.
Ministers admitted that the seven-week national lockdown in England, which came into force at midnight on Tuesday, could be extended into March.
Meanwhile Rishi Sunak, chancellor, revealed that his Budget on March 3 would contain new emergency measures to help business cope with the ongoing economic fallout of the pandemic; most existing support expires at the end of March or April.
“The budget in early March is an excellent opportunity to take stock of the range of support we’ve put in place and to set out the next stage of our economic response to coronavirus at that particular time,” Mr Sunak said.
He announced a £4.6bn fresh financial support package to help companies through the lockdown, but business leaders warned it would not be enough to save tens of thousands of companies from collapse.
The prospect of a hard road out of the crisis was reinforced by Chris Whitty, chief medical officer. He said restrictions would be lifted “by degrees” and warned that Covid-19 curbs could still be needed next winter.
“That’s possible, as winter will benefit the virus,” he told a Downing Street press conference on the day infections topped the 60,000 mark for the first time.
Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, said that the vaccination of large sections of the population could lead to the coronavirus mutating, requiring new vaccines in future.
Mr Johnson insisted that around 14m of the most vulnerable people could be vaccinated by mid-February, raising hopes that the lockdown could be eased. But other ministers sounded a more cautious note.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, told Sky News that he could not “predict with certainty” the end of the lockdown in mid-February, but added: “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.”
The prime minister will explain the third English lockdown to MPs on Wednesday as the House of Commons meets for its second emergency sitting in a week: last week MPs were recalled to approve Mr Johnson’s Brexit trade deal.
Labour leader Keir Starmer put Mr Johnson under pressure to ensure the required delivery of 2m shots a week. Prof Whitty said the target of vaccinating 14m people by mid-February was “realistic but not easy”.
In a televised address to the nation, Sir Keir will call for a contract between the government and the British people: “The country stays at home; the government delivers the vaccine,” he will say.
Mr Johnson said that daily updates would be provided from Monday on the number of vaccinations delivered. So far 1.3m people in the UK have received jabs, including 650,000 to people aged over 80.
Conservative MPs broadly support the new lockdown — new Office for National Statistics data show that one in 30 Londoners had the virus on January 2 — but they want Mr Johnson to focus on delivering the vaccine.
Some Tory MPs are still fuming over the chaotic closure of schools, announced by Mr Johnson on Monday on the same day that parents had sent their children back to primary schools after the Christmas break.
“There are concerns about schools, the ability to get 14m vaccines by mid-February, a lack of cost/benefit analysis and potential never-ending lockdown,” said one senior Conservative MP.
Amid growing concerns about lax testing of people coming into the country, Mr Johnson said that Britain would be “bringing in measures to ensure that we test people . . . and prevent the virus being admitted”.
Meanwhile the Department for Transport is drawing up plans to cut rail services during the lockdown to only about half their usual level — down from their current provision of about 85 per cent.