Covid controls will be needed through the winter, warns Hancock

Measures to control coronavirus will be needed through the winter despite the latest successful vaccine trials, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned.

Mr Hancock said the success of the lockdown in reducing case numbers in England meant the country will be able to return to a tiered system of local restrictions from December 2 as planned.

As the Oxford-AstraZeneca team announced its vaccine had proved 70% effective, he said the reopening of non-essential shops would have a “big positive effect” on the economy in the run-up to Christmas.

However, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham warned continuing curbs on the hospitality sector in the worst-hit areas would have a “devastating” effect on many businesses.

Boris Johnson is due to set out details of the revised three-tier system of controls in a Commons statement on Monday.

As well as allowing non-essential retail to reopen in all three tiers, it is expected the Prime Minister will say gyms can welcome back customers while grass roots sports will also be able to resume.

Cinemas will be allowed to reopen in areas under Tier 1 and 2, and midnight mass and Christingle services will be permitted in all three tiers.

There will also be an easing of the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants with an extra hour’s drinking up time.

However, controls will remain, with those under the toughest Tier 3 measures expected only to be allowed to offer takeaways while those in Tier 2 will only be able to serve alcohol with food.

Coronavirus
Matt Hancock has said controls will be needed until a vaccine is generally available (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Mr Hancock acknowledged the measures were tougher than those that were in place under the previous three-tier system.

But with the roll-out of a mass vaccination programme not expected until next year, he said it was essential that the disease was kept under control over the winter.

“We know that this virus can accelerate very fast if there are not measures in place. It is so important that the measures that are in place continue until the vaccine can make us safe,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I am very glad to see in the data that the number of cases across the UK is clearly starting to fall. That is good news.

“Therefore, in England, when the lockdown measures come to an end on December 2, we can be confident that they can be replaced with a tiered system, but the top tier is going to have to be tougher than the previous top tier because before it managed to flatten the curve but not have it fall.”

However, Mr Burnham – who clashed with ministers over the imposition of Tier 3 controls in Greater Manchester before the lockdown – warned the new measures would hit the hospitality sector disproportionately.

“I am worried about what I am hearing this morning. It seems that a toughened Tier 3 could be devastating for the hospitality industry and will hit cities and the city economy very, very hard indeed,” he told the Today programme.

“They seem to be going too far before Christmas to allow too much over Christmas and that will lead to a huge loss of hospitality businesses, which I would say is too big a price to pay.

“To close all hospitality businesses in Tier 3 areas – that will be large parts of the North – that will be devastating for many of those businesses. They will not survive that.”

In his Commons statement, to be delivered virtually as he continues to self-isolate, Mr Johnson will announce major rapid testing programmes for all areas forced into the highest tier of restrictions.

Andy Burnham
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham says the measures will have a ‘devastating’ impact on the hospitality sector (Martin Rickett/PA)

He will also set out plans for a trial of the repeat testing of close contacts of individuals who test positive for Covid-19 to prevent them from having to isolate, after the proposals were signed off by the Cabinet on Sunday.

He will hope the measures will be enough to convince dozens of Conservative MPs in the Covid recovery group (CRG), which is threatening to oppose any new restrictions in a Commons vote, to back the scheme.

Steve Baker, a leading figure in the group, said while they were “reassured” by some of the messages coming out of  Government, they needed to know more before deciding which way to vote.

“It is still the case that where there are restrictions we still want to be sure they are going to have an impact on the transmission of Covid and we want to know that whatever is proposed they will save more lives than it will cost,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

“I think we will have to hear what the Prime Minister says before we decide how we are voting. There is of course always a danger colleagues will vote against.”

Meanwhile Mr Johnson will set out the basis of plans to allow a small number of households across the UK to mix over a limited number of days around Christmas, but is not expected to be in a position to give the specifics.

Over the weekend, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove met leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to endorse “a shared objective of facilitating some limited additional household bubbling for a small number of days”.

The Cabinet Office said talks were continuing to finalise the agreement, including over travel arrangements, and that it was hoped a conclusion will come this week.

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