The health secretary has suggested parts of England could remain under tough restrictions for months as the government admitted a new strain of coronavirus was now out of control.
Hours after the prime minister cancelled the Christmas plans of millions of people, the number of daily recorded infections in the UK reached an all-time high of 35,928.
As scientists warned the new variant could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original virus, Matt Hancock also refused to rule out another round of school closures, although he said that was not currently the plan.
The news of a new, highly infectious strain caused panic on the continent where countries including Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium closed their borders to travellers arriving from the UK.
Mr Hancock warned that strict measures were needed to fight the new mutation of the disease and suggested that they could have to remain in force until a significant proportion of the population had been vaccinated. On Saturday large swathes of southeast England and London were placed under a new, tougher, tier 4 system of controls.
Mr Hancock told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “We know with this new variant you can catch it more easily from a small amount of the virus being present.
“We know that because we know that in November that in the areas where this new variant started, in Kent, the cases carried on rising whereas in the rest of the country the November lockdown worked very effectively. It is an enormous challenge, until we can get the vaccine rolled out to protect people. This is what we face over the next couple of months.”
Later during an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Mr Hancock described the new strain as “out of control”.
Scientists have warned the government that the new variant could increase the R rate, the speed at which the virus spreads, by up to 0.9 per cent. Experts warn the rate must be kept below 1 to ensure the virus is under control.
Ministers were warned of how contagious the new strain of the disease was on Friday. By late on Saturday afternoon the prime minister had issued stay-at-home orders to millions and cancelled plans to allow others to spend up to five days together in a Christmas “bubble”.
But Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chair of the British Medical Association, accused ministers of failing to follow the science even before the new data emerged, warning that case numbers were already on the rise.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also criticised Mr Johnson, accusing him of “indecision and weak leadership that is costing lives and it is costing jobs”.
The prime minister is also facing growing anger among his own MPs about how the latest restrictions were announced. Conservative MPs have called for parliament to be recalled to debate the new controls. One senior Tory MP even accused ministers of delaying the announcement until parliament had closed for the festive period.
Sir Charles Walker, the vice chair of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, said he believed ministers knew before Friday that they planned to bring in the new restrictions. He also called on whoever was responsible to resign.
“The government, in my view, knew on Thursday, possibly even Wednesday, that they were going to pull the plug on Christmas but they waited till parliament had gone,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One. “That, on top of everything else, is a resigning matter. I am not asking for the government to collapse. I am asking for a secretary of state to take some responsibility.”
Last month Mr Johnson was forced to back down in the face of parliamentary pressure from his own backbenchers over his plans for extended coronavirus tiers in England. In an 11th-hour U-turn, the prime minister was forced to promise MPs a second vote in February on whether or not the tiers would last until March.