Furious Tories savage Matt Hancock over 'forever lockdown'
Tories savage Matt Hancock over ‘never-ending lockdown’ as UK’s Covid second wave continues to shrink: Cases and deaths drop 27% with 12,364 infections and 1,052 victims – but Health Secretary warns border restrictions may still be in place until AUTUMN
- Matt Hancock has unveiled even more draconian measures at the UK borders
- Health Secretary was assailed by Tories over when lockdown will start to ease
- Mr Hancock warned the border squeeze might still be needed until the Autumn
Britain today announced 12,364 more coronavirus cases and 1,052 deaths as the winter wave continues to be brought under control during lockdown.
Both figures have dropped by more than a quarter compared to last week – with today’s infections down 26.6 per cent on last week and deaths by 27.4 per cent.
The Department of Health also revealed another 356,291 doses of vaccines were administered on Monday, with 12.6million Brits having now received their first dose.
With six days still to go, Number 10 is within touching distance of delivering on its ambitious promise to inject the 15million most vulnerable by February 15.
But hopes the world-beating vaccine rollout will mean lockdown curbs can be significantly eased any time soon were shot down today as Matt Hancock warned draconian border controls could last until the Autumn.
Furious Tories took aim at the Health Secretary over the never-ending shutdowns when he unveiled the latest squeeze aimed at preventing variant coronavirus strains getting into the country.
As of Monday travellers from high-risk ‘red list’ countries will be forced to spend 10 days in ‘quarantine hotels’, and all arrivals must have test negative three times. Anyone who lies about whether they have been to places on the banned list recently will face up to 10 years in prison.
In a Commons statement this afternoon, Mr Hancock was confronted by a series of senior Conservatives over when the restrictions might ease – and whether the goalposts were being shifted on relaxing the wider lockdown.
Former chief whip Mark Harper, chair of the lockdown-sceptic CRG bloc of around 70 MPs, urged the government to reconsider its approach with Covid likely to be a permanent issue.
‘If the virus continues to mutate, surely the risk is going to be there forever,’ he said.
But Mr Hancock batted away pressure for the government to focus on pressure on the NHS rather than case numbers. And he also suggested that the border constraints might have to stay until the Autumn, when booster vaccines will be available to counter variants.
Boris Johnson is due to unveil his ‘road map’ for easing the lockdown in the week of February 22, by which time the four most vulnerable groups should have received vaccine doses. Schools are set to be the first things back from March 8, but the concerns about mutant strains have sparked warnings from scientists that any relaxation must be slower.
Matt Hancock was assailed by demands for an exit strategy when he unveiled the latest squeeze aimed at preventing variant coronavirus strains getting into the country
Former chief whip Mark Harper (left), chair of the lockdown-sceptic CRG bloc of around 70 MPs, and transport committee chair Huw Merriman (right) were among the Tories who challenged Mr Hancock
Mr Hancock said he made ‘no apologies’ for the incredibly harsh new border measures, warning that protecting the UK from variant strains that can potentially evade vaccines is ‘mission critical’.
He revealed the government is creating a new criminal offence of hiding from the authorities that you have visited one of the countries on the UK’s ‘red list’.
The draconian step came as he confirmed that from Monday all arrivals will have to take three gold-standard PCR coronavirus tests – one pre-departure and two during their isolation period. Those who fail to get the checks could be hit with thousands of pounds in fines.
Mr Hancock also declared that 4,600 rooms have now been secured by the government from 16 hotels so the ‘quarantine hotel’ system can get up and running as planned on Monday, although the Department of Health refused to name them.
All incomers from ‘red list’ countries must stay in the rooms for 10 days, costing £1,750 each including food and drink and their testing bill.
Arrivals from dozens of high-risk countries on the ‘red list’ will have to test negative 72 hours before travelling, and then be screened again twice, on day two and day eight.
How will the new border rules work?
Matt Hancock has announced details of the tougher border measures to MPs.
RULES FOR RED LIST TRAVELLERS
People will be required to test negative for coronavirus 72 hours before departure, using a kit that meets UK government standards.
On arrival they will be taken to a ‘quarantine hotel’ for a 10-day stay that will leave them with a £1,750 bill – although the government pays up front.
They will be tested again on day two and day eight of quarantine, with costs included in the wider charge.
RULES FOR NON-RED LIST
The same requirement for a negative test result 72 hours before departure applies.
Once in the UK, they must isolate for 10 days at home or in private accommodation, with the authorities able to check that they are obeying the rules.
Tests will be required on day two and day eight of isolation, and must be booked through a government portal in advance of travel. The portal will be launched on Thursday.
The costs are not yet known but PCR tests typically cost around £120 a time.
It is thought many people will opt for the test and release scheme – which means they can escape restrictions after testing negative on day five.
However, Mr Hancock suggested they will still be required to take tests on day two and day eight – meaning they could be screened four times in total.
Failure to stick to the hotel quarantine will be punishable with a fine of up to £10,000, Mr Hancock said.
Meanwhile, all other travellers will also have to show a negative result before coming to the UK, and then face two more tests while isolating at home or in other private accommodation. The government has not said how much that will cost although typically it is around £120 per test.
The existing ‘test and release’ scheme will stay in place so people can escape restrictions five days after arrival – but they will still have to be tested on day two and day eight regardless.
Mr Hancock said failure to get the screening – which must be booked in advance through a government portal – will be punishable with a £1,000 fine on the first occasion, and £2,000 on the second.
And he said people who lie about whether they have been to ‘red list’ countries could be hit with a jail sentence of up to 10 years under a new law.
But Mr Harper told the Commons: ‘When is this policy going to end, if ever? Because if the virus continues to mutate, surely the risk is going to be there forever and so when can it be removed?’
Mr Hancock responded: ‘The risk of mutations absolutely can and will be managed through the evolution of vaccines in the way that the annual flu jab changes each year and allows us to protect ourselves.
‘Of course these measures, whilst necessary now, are not measures that can be in place permanently. We need to replace them over time with a system of safe and free international travel. That’s where we need to get to.
‘The first task is to vaccinate the population. If we get good news on the vaccination impact on hospitalisations and deaths from people who have new mutations, then we will be in a better place. If we do not get such good news, then we will need to use the updated vaccines to protect against the variants of concerns.
‘The scientists inform and advise me that there are repeatedly independently around the world mutations of the same type in the E484K area of the virus, as mentioned by (Jonathan Ashworth). Now that gives the scientists a good start in where to target the new updated vaccine.’
Huw Merriman, chairman of the Transport Select Committee, also called for a schedule, pointing to the impact on the summer travel industry.
‘Summer travel is so important to the aviation industry,’ he said.
‘Is this just to last until we’ve vaccinated 99 per cent of the mortality risk, which should be by May, or is it until we tweak the vaccination – in which case this could really, really have an impact on the aviation industry?’
Mr Hancock insisted: ‘We want to exit from this into a system of safe international travel as soon as practicable and as soon as is safe.’
He said work is ongoing to assess the current vaccines against variants of the virus, but added: ‘If that isn’t forthcoming then we will need to vaccinate with a further booster jab in the autumn, which we’re working with the vaccine industry.
‘These are the uncertainties within which we are operating and hence, for now, my judgment is the package we’ve announced today is the right one.’
Tory MP William Wragg asked whether the conditions for ending lockdown have changed.
‘The original purpose of lockdown was to keep hospitals from falling over and to reduce hospitalisations,’ he said.
‘So if that is achieved through a vaccination programme, is it now the Government’s intention to use the level of the virus in circulation – the number of cases in the population – as the determination as when to ease lockdown?’
Mr Hancock replied by stressing that Mr Johnson had cited criteria including NHS pressure, deaths and variants as well as cases.
‘No – the Prime Minister has set out the four conditions that need to be met and he’ll be saying more about this on 22 February,’ he said.
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