As England approaches the two-week mark on its second national lockdown, some experts have warned that coronavirus restrictions may have to last beyond 2 December, when the lockdown is expected to come to an end.
With Christmas on the horizon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted that the strict lockdown will end as planned and the country will revert to the previous tiered approach of localised restrictions.
He acknowledged that Britons were “anxious” and “quite frankly fed up” with the pandemic, and said all four nations in the UK were working together on a joint approach to “ensure families can come together” during the Christmas period.
However, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove said before the lockdown began on 5 November that the end date could be extended and will only be “reviewed” on its scheduled end date.
During the coronavirus briefing from Downing Street on Monday, Matt Hancock said he was unable to rule out an extension to the lockdown, while Public Health England's Dr Susan Hopkins warned the tiered system that ministers want England to return to may have to be strengthened.
Mr Hancock added that it was "too early for us to know" whether coronavirus cases will be brought down sufficiently to ease the second lockdown as planned on 2 December.
With the news on Monday that a vaccine from US firm Moderna was almost 95 per cent effective in protecting against the virus, Mr Hancock said "great advances in medical science are coming to the rescue,” though he admitted the UK had only secured five million doses of Moderna's jab.
"While there is much uncertainty, we can see the candle of hope and we must do all that we can to nurture its flame," he said.
"But we're not there yet. Until the science can make us safe we must remain vigilant and keep following the rules that we know can keep this virus under control."
"It is too early for us to know what the number of cases will be as we come to the end of the current lockdown," the Health Secretary said.
"But we absolutely hope to be able to replace the national lockdown with a tiered system similar to what we had before."
Meanwhile, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said on Tuesday that ministers want to see a "significant easing" of coronavirus controls when lockdown ends on 2 December, but he suggested tighter controls may be needed in the top tier 3.
Mr Jenrick told Sky News that any extension of the current lockdown would require a vote of Parliament.
"It is our hope and expectation that that won't be the case and that people in England will be able to move back into the tiered system,” he said.
"There will be a review. That work is undergoing on what those tiers look like and how local areas go back in but that will very much depend on the data.
He continued: “We will have to make decisions nearer the end of the month once we have got the most up-to-date information possible.”
Members from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have also cautioned that the lockdown could be longer than expected.
On Friday, the group released new analysis that suggested infection levels would rise again to levels recorded at the start of November if further measures lasting beyond the end of lockdown were not implemented.
It also warned that the previous tier system of restrictions – which the government plans to revert to once the current lockdown ends – may not be enough to bring the number of infections down. Without stringent measures, such as a ban on household mixing, the rate of infections could plateau instead of fall.
The report said: “The longer-term outlook depends on both the nature of [restrictions] that are implemented in England after 2 December and policies over the festive period.
“If England returns to the same application of the tiering system in place before 5 November, then transmission will return to the same rate of increase as today.”
Dr Hopkins, who is advising the Government's Covid-19 response, stood next to Mr Hancock at the Downing Street press conference on Monday, and said the lowest tier of pre-lockdown measures had "little effect".
She added that they will have to consider strengthening the measures "to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone".
Dr Hopkins said that tier 2 of the local restrictions appeared to have worked in some areas but "not so well in others".
"We see very little effect from tier 1 and I think when we look at what tiers may be there in the future, we will have to think about strengthening them in order to get us through the winter months until the vaccine is available for everyone," she added.
Professor John Edmunds, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Sage member, also warned the government against “flip-flopping” between the economy and the pandemic in its response.
He urged a long-term strategy, saying that encouraging the public to visit bars and restaurants for a period of time and then closing the hospitality industry when Covid-19 cases rise is not a “sensible way to run the epidemic”.
Speaking to the PA news agency this weekend, he said: “We need to take a long-term view and be sensible and realise that we’re going to have to have restrictions in place for some time.”
He said it would only be safe to lift the restrictions completely when large swathes of society have received a vaccine for Covid-19, which scientists are still in the process of testing and developing.
“But flip-flopping between encouraging people to mix socially, which is what you’re doing by encouraging people to go into restaurants and bars, versus then immediately closing them again, isn’t a very sensible way to run the epidemic,” he added.
Prof Edmunds also said it was “too early to judge” if the current end date for the lockdown was too soon to lift the restrictions.
He warned that returning to the lowest alert level of the government’s regional tier system would be “very unwise”, as it “doesn’t do much at all”.
“The problem with the tier system is that inevitably you end up with quite a lot of places with high incidence under those circumstances,” he said.
“Because the tier 1 and tier 2 ones just eventually drift up into tier 3 with a high incidence, and then tier 3 holds it there.
“It wasn’t a very well thought-through strategy, frankly.”
Professor Susan Michie, also a member of Sage, said that people must stick to the current rules to give the country the best shot at easing measures on 2 December and being able to spend Christmas with loved ones.
Urging the public not to be complacent in light of the recent news about a potential Covid-19 vaccine, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday: “I think for the next two weeks, everybody has to really get all their resolve together.”