Matt Hancock has refused to rule out a national lockdown in response to surging coronavirus cases and hospital admissions.
Ministers are under pressure to impose tougher restrictions across the country after the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer called for national measures yesterday.
The Health Secretary said the situation with the growth of the virus is ‘very difficult’, with more then 50,000 cases recorded for the six days running, and the Covid death toll climbing past 75,000.
When asked the prospect of a third lockdown, 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.’
Asked whether Tier 4 restrictions work, Mr Hancock said: ‘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.’
Mr Hancock also defended the decision for schools to reopen in some areas today despite the soaring infection rate.
He insisted the government was following public health advice and that schools in those areas were safe.
‘It’s also clear that the proportion of teachers who catch coronavirus is no higher than the rest of the population,’ he added.
Boris Johnson yesterday said he has ‘no doubt’ that classrooms are safe and parents should send children back to schools in England which remain open.
All of London’s primary schools and those in some surrounding areas will not reopen until January 18 due to the fast-spreading mutant variant, with pupils elsewhere expected to return to classrooms today.
But councils in Cumbria and Kent have urged the Government to allow schools to remain closed in other areas, while teaching unions are calling for all schools to switch to remote learning for a brief period.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said it was ‘very hard to tell’ how many schools would be open for the start of the term.
‘Some schools in Tier 4 areas will be open for vulnerable pupils and key worker families and will be providing remote learning for others, yet in other areas also in Tier 4, all pupils will be admitted,’ he said.
‘That’s a confusing picture for school leaders and families alike.’
Council leaders in Wolverhampton, Norfolk, Slough, Manchester, County Durham, Lancashire, Birmingham and Gateshead said they would support the decision of head teachers who do not think it is safe for the school to open.
Cumbria County Council said it had written to the Department for Education (DfE) for permission to keep primary schools in the area closed for the first two weeks of term.
Leader of Kent County Council Roger Gough urged Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to keep all primary schools in the county closed, saying it is ‘very hard to justify’ letting some schools open while others are closed.
Primary school pupils in Thanet, Canterbury, Dover and Folkestone and Hythe are expected to return on Monday while the other districts in Kent will learn remotely for the first two weeks of term.
Similarly, Essex County Council said it was seeking ‘urgent clarity’ from the Government on the position of reopening schools in north Essex amid rising infection rates.
It said that primary schools in Colchester, Tendring and Uttlesford – the only districts in Essex where schools were due to reopen – would move to remote learning from Tuesday.
Brighton and Hove City Council has advised primary schools in the Tier 4 area not to return in person, except for vulnerable children and those of key workers, until January 18.
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