Health secretary Matt Hancock has said that Boris Johnson’s tier system is “no longer strong enough” to deal with the new more virulent variant of coronavirus.
As the government came under increasing pressure for tighter restrictions to rein in soaring hospitalisations and deaths, Mr Hancock did not rule out a new national coronavirus lockdown or school closures.
But he blamed public behaviour for increasing infections, saying: “What matters is, yes of course, the rules that we put in place, but it is also about how people act.”
Mr Hancock hailed the roll-out of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19, which was administered to patients on Monday for the first time since gaining regulatory approval last week.
But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: "The new variant of the coronavirus makes life much harder for everybody. It makes it harder to control the spread, because it passes on so much faster.
“It means that the old tier system, which was clearly working, is no longer strong enough.”
Mr Hancock fuelled expectations that areas currently in tier 3 could face a move up to tier 4, after the government’s Coronavirus Operations (CO) committee meets today, saying ministers were ready to move “incredibly quickly” if necessary.
“There are tier 3 areas of the country where the virus is clearly spreading and increasing, and in fact some of those areas are where it is increasing the fastest,” he warned.
“We have shown that we are prepared to move incredibly quickly - within 24 hours if we think that is necessary - and we keep these things under review all the time.
“We look at the data on a daily basis and we can see at the moment that there are significant rises, especially, as I say, in the areas that are still in tier 3.”
Tier 3 measures currently cover 22 per cent of the population of England - some 12.2m people in areas including much of Yorkshire and the southwest. A move to tier 4 for these areas would mean shutting non-essential shops and a “stay home” order for residents.
Speaking on Monday morning as teachers go into revolt over plans to reopen classrooms amid rocketing cases, Matt Hancock said the spread was "down to people's behaviour" rather than government policy.
All teachers' unions have now called for a "pause" in the return to schools, which is happening in some areas of England today, while Labour has meanwhile urged the government to impose a national lockdown similar to the one in November.
Asked whether another lockdown was necessary, Mr Hancock told Sky News: "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."
But asked whether the government’s existing Tier 4 restrictions were working, the health secretary appeared to shift blame onto the public, telling the broadcaster: "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."
Challenged on his remarks, he said that his comments were not "about blame" but rather "how we collectively as a society keep this under control for the next couple of months until the vaccines make us safe".
Many of England's primary schools are returning to work this week, including in Tier 4 areas where the spread is the highest.
But secondary schools across the country staying closed until at least 18 January except for vulnerable and key worker children.
In a joint statement, all unions that represent staff at schools – the GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON and Unite – this morning signed a statement branding the government's handling "chaotic".
"Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic," they said.
Unions called for reopening to be paused for all but vulnerable children and those of key workers, and for a remove to remote learning and vaccinating school staff.
Turning to Boris Johnson's claims about school safety, they added: "Instead of casually asserting that schools are safe, the Prime Minister should sit down with unions to discuss a joint approach to ensuring safe working arrangements in all schools and prioritising enabling all pupils have the equipment and access they need to receive a high standard of remote learning until the safety of them and the staff in their school can be guaranteed."
But asked about the concerns Mr Hancock appeared to dismiss teachers' health and safety worries, stating: "It is also 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 have taken and that is what people should follow because, of course, education is very important as well, especially for people's long-term health."
Labour has shied away from backing teachers over school closures. Education secretary Kate Green told the BBC on Monday morning that there needed to be a "clear understanding" among the public to "stay at home".
She called for a "stronger set" of coronavirus restrictions, adding: "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.
"And I do think that we will need a stronger set of measures... but also a very clear understanding among the whole of the public everywhere that staying at home, not going out except when it is essential, not mixing socially or unnecessarily is key to getting this virus under control."
Opposition leader Keir Starmer on Sunday night called for a new national lockdown to be imposed within 24 hours similar to the one imposed in November. The party indicated that this approach would not see schools closed.
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