Hancock – Stricter tier changes absolutely necessary despite vaccination joy

Matt Hancock said soaring coronavirus cases meant it was “absolutely necessary” to plunge 20 million people in England under the strictest possible coronavirus restrictions.

The Health Secretary confirmed that the Midlands, the North East, parts of the North West and parts of the south-west of England will go into the toughest Tier 4 of coronavirus restrictions from a minute past midnight on New Year’s Eve, covering more than three-quarters (78.3%) of the English population.

Liverpool will move up to Tier 3, despite it hosting a mass-testing pilot scheme for residents last month, while other areas jumped from the more relaxed Tier 2 to the most restrictive measures in a week.

Rising coronavirus infections have also seen the Isle of Wight plunged from Tier 1 into Tier 4 in just one week.

It comes as NHS England reported a further 494 coronavirus-related deaths in hospitals in England.

Tier 4 restrictions instruct people to stay at home and only leave for a specific purpose or if there is a “reasonable excuse”.

This includes going to work if it cannot be done from home, shopping for essentials such as food and medicine, attending education or training, using registered childcare, outdoor exercise and for medical reasons.

Outdoors, people in Tier 4 can only meet one person from another household in a public place.

Mr Hancock said the newly approved Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine, due to be rolled out from Monday, would help bring an end to coronavirus misery.

But he said there was little choice but to extend the “blasted” restrictions, particularly due to the new strain, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson said was responsible for 60% of new cases.

Speaking in the Commons, the Health Secretary said: “We must act to suppress the virus now, not least because the new variant makes the time between now and then even more difficult.

“And so whilst we have the good news of the vaccine today, we also have to take some difficult decisions.”

Covid-19 restrictions in England
(PA Graphics)

The Government said infection rates “have increased faster than expected” in areas where the new strain has been circulating, such as the South West, the Midlands and parts of north-west England, and that “stronger measures are required to get the virus under control”.

Mr Hancock said: “Sharply rising cases and the hospitalisations that follow demonstrate the need to act where the virus is spreading.”

The Health Secretary added: “I know that Tier 3 and 4 measures place a significant burden on people, and especially on businesses affected, but I am afraid it is absolutely necessary because of the number of cases that we’ve seen.

“But where we are still able to give places greater freedoms, we will continue to do so.”

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said Labour would support the tougher regulations when put to a vote in the Commons on Wednesday.

He said: “Almost the whole of England is now in a form of lockdown and for my constituents in Leicester, and I’m sure the constituents of MPs from Greater Manchester, will be deeply worried that our areas have now been in a form of restriction for months and months and months.

“It’s having a huge impact on families and small businesses.”

Others called for a national lockdown.

The Government's tiers system has failed.

The virus is totally out of control, hospitals are overwhelmed and NHS staff are on their knees.

We need a national lockdown – with full financial support – and this time, it should include online learning at schools and universities.

— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) December 30, 2020

His Labour colleague, Coventry South MP Zarah Sultana, said the tiers system had “failed”.

She said: “The virus is totally out of control, hospitals are overwhelmed and NHS staff are on their knees.

“We need a national lockdown – with full financial support – and this time, it should include online learning at schools and universities.”

A statement on behalf of nine council and other leaders in the north-east of England made a similar request.

It said: “Our view is that the Government should consider a national lockdown now to ensure the spread of the new variant is slowed and efforts can be focused on the crucial rollout of the vaccine.

“This is a national problem and a national solution is required now.”

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