Following a meeting of the government’s coronavirus operations committee — chaired by Boris Johnson on Tuesday evening – the health secretary said more people across the country will be subject to strict tier 4 measures.
Under tier four, which already applies to around 25 million, people are ordered by the government to “stay at home” and all non-essential shops, including gyms and entertainment venues, are instructed to close.
Mr Hancock will update MPs later today after the Commons has voted on the government’s Brexit trade Bill, which will implement the UK-EU agreement reached on Christmas Eve before the end of the transition period on New Year’s Eve.
His comments came after professor Andrew Hayward, a government scientific adviser, warned that urgent national action was needed to prevent a “catastrophe” in January as he said the coronavirus pandemic had entered a “new dangerous phase”.
Experts on the Independent Sage group – set up to shadow the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies – also urged Mr Johnson to order an immediate national lockdown, as the UK recorded more than 53,000 new infections on Tuesday.
Pressed on professor Haywards comments, Mr Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’m going to be setting out more action we have to take in the short term later today to the House of Commons.”
Speaking just moments after it emerged the UK’s independent medicines regulator had approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, enabling the government to ramp up mass immunisations, he added: “Throughout the strategy has been to suppress the virus until a vaccine can make us safe.
“But the new variant means the suppression of the virus is also much harder and that’s why we had to introduce tier 4 and I’ll be setting out the further extensions we’re going to have to make later today to the House of Commons.”
Mr Hancock also told Sky News that the NHS was facing a “very significant challenge” right now, adding: "There has been a significant rise in the number of cases - the highest number of cases recorded yesterday, 53,000 cases. We are going to have to take further action.”
He added that the education secretary Gavin Williamson would be setting out the government’s proposals on the return of schools after the summer holiday amid intensifying calls for classrooms to remain closed for a longer period.
“Clearly we want to protect education as much as possible,” Mr Hancock said. “But the new variant does make it much easier for this new disease to transmit so we’re going to protect education as much as we can. I don’t want to steal his [Mr Williamson] thunder.”
Mr Hancock said the approval of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab will mean the UK can “accelerate” the rollout of vaccinations in the coming weeks, but refused to put a number on the government’s target.
However, he said enough jabs of both the Oxford and Pfizer vaccines have been ordered to vaccinate the “whole population”, after priority groups, such as health care workers and those living in residential care homes had received jabs.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies