MPs will vote on England’s latest lockdown with Boris Johnson under pressure over the chaos over schools and his strategy for deploying coronavirus vaccines.
The Commons has been recalled from its Christmas recess to debate and retrospectively vote on the measures announced by the Prime Minister on Monday.
The Prime Minister will update MPs on the new controls, while Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will set out his plans for England’s pupils after schools were closed, with GCSE and A-level exams cancelled.
Mr Johnson believes the rollout of vaccines will provide a route out of lockdown, but his strategy was criticised by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The Government is giving the vaccine to as many priority patients as possible with a second shot after 12 weeks, rather than hold back supplies to offer the booster dose three weeks after the first jab.
The WHO said it would not recommend that approach, instead suggesting the interval should be between three and four weeks.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the Government had a “stretching” target of vaccinating 14 million people in the highest priority groups – the elderly, those with clinical needs, care home residents and staff and frontline NHS workers – by February 15
The Government wants England’s schools to reopen after the February half-term starting that week, but experts warned that would depend on progress in the battle to curb Covid-19 cases.
Around 1.3 million people in the UK have been vaccinated with the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech jabs and Mr Zahawi said there will be a “massive acceleration” in the coming days.
He told Sky News: “I’m confident that as we begin to deploy and get more sites operational – I talked about the hospitals, the GPs, the community pharmacies and the national vaccination centres – so we will be at over 1,000 sites vaccinating.”
There have been concerns about the speed at which vaccines can be ready for injection.
The bulk vaccine has to undergo a “sterility test” when it goes to the “fill and finish” operation to make it ready for use.
“The MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) are doing everything in their capability to do it properly without cutting corners and safety to test every batch,” Mr Zahawi said.
“The worst thing we can do… in a national vaccination programme that is the biggest in this nation’s history, is to get this wrong.”
The regulations enforcing England’s national lockdown came into effect at 00.01am on Wednesday, as new figures suggested one in 50 people had coronavirus last week.
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested 1.1 million people in private households in England had Covid-19 between December 27 and January 2.
The number of daily confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK topped 60,000 for the first time, while a further 830 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday.
The latest data from NHS England showed there were 26,467 Covid-19 patients in hospital as of 8am on January 5 – a week-on-week increase of 21%.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the risk level will gradually decrease over time with measures being “lifted by degrees possibly at different rates in different parts of the country”, but warned some restrictions may have to be introduced again next winter.
Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a member of Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said “we’re in for a long haul” in the fight with coronavirus.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “Vaccination is a way out, but I think he’s right to raise that possibility that there could be – next winter or even the winter after – the possibility that we will see a resurgence of Covid to such an extent that Government again has to take measures to prevent another large outbreak.”
All parts of the UK are now under stringent coronavirus restrictions.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed a lockdown on Scotland for the rest of January, with a legal requirement to stay at home and schools closed to most pupils until February.
Schools and colleges in Wales will also remain closed until at least January 18 and move to online learning, with GCSE and A-level exams already cancelled.
In Northern Ireland, schools are to engage in remote learning until the mid-term break but there is no clarity on whether exams will go ahead.
Mr Williamson will set out his approach for England’s schools when he addresses MPs.
Public Health England’s Susan Hopkins said there was no guarantee that schools would be able to return after the scheduled February break.
She told the BBC: “I think it will really depend on the epidemiology of the virus… we will have to look at it by year, age group by age group, as happened the first time round, and the final decisions will lay with Government over when they want to bring the students back.”
Education Select Committee chairman Robert Halfon told Sky News the situation regarding schools was “a mess”.
“I think now we have to move on and make sure we have an exam system that is a level playing field for students and fair to the disadvantaged,” he said.