New Covid controls for England will last for months, warns Hancock

By Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor
·4-min read

New tiered coronavirus controls for England will have to remain in place for the “forthcoming few months” until a vaccine is generally available, the Health Secretary has warned.

Matt Hancock welcomed the Commons vote on Tuesday which approved the new rules – despite a rebellion by 55 Conservative MPs who voted against them.

But in an olive branch to the rebels he said ministers would consider easing the controls in areas with lower infection rates when the regulations come up for review in two weeks time.

The Government won the vote by 291 to 78 – a majority of 213 – after Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer ordered his MPs to abstain.

However the Tory revolt is the biggest since Boris Johnson entered No 10 last year and many backbenchers are deeply unhappy that their areas remain under tight controls despite the lifting of the England-wide lockdown from midnight on Tuesday.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson acknowledged concerns about the impact of the measures on the economy but insisted that the Government was doing all it could to protect jobs.

While he said the approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by regulators for use in the UK was “very good news”, restrictions would still be needed through the “tough winter months”.

“It’s very important that the package of moderate but tough measures that the House voted for last night, the tiering system, is followed across the country because that’s how we will continue to beat the virus,” he told MPs.

Earlier, Mr Hancock said that it was essential to maintain controls until there was a general rollout of a vaccination programme in the new year.

“The regulations that we passed last night with a substantial majority in the House of Commons, they will be in place for the forthcoming few months,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Coronavirus
Matt Hancock has said the situation will be better by the spring (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“But you can see now with confidence that from the spring onwards things are getting better.

“Between now and then we have got to hold our nerve, we have got to hold our resolve. We can see the dawn in the distance but we have got to get through to morning.”

Mr Hancock said the Government would consider allowing more localised measures when the rules come up for their first fortnightly review on December 16, potentially enabling some areas to move into a lower, less restrictive tier.

“Where that is appropriate, that’s what we will do,” he said.

“We will look at the country where the tiers apply according to the epidemiology, according to the human geographies of where people live and work because that is how the virus gets passed on.”

Meanwhile Sir Keir has warned Labour could push for a fresh vote unless the Government publishes a detailed sector-by-sector analysis by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of the impact of the restrictions on the economy.

Writing in The Times, he said: “I do not want to go down that road, but I am prepared to do so in the national interest.”

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(PA Graphics)

Former Cabinet ministers Damian Green, David Davis and Jeremy Wright were among the Tories to vote against the Government, as did Conservative former party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith.

15 Labour MPs also defied party orders and voted against the regulations, including allies of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who also voted against the measures as an independent.

Mr Johnson’s press secretary said there would not be any consequences for the 55 Tory rebels.

She said: “The Prime Minister respects them. He respects that this was and is an extremely difficult decision.”

Under the new restrictions, households living in Tiers 2 and 3 – covering 99% of the population in England – are banned from mixing indoors and there are strict controls on hospitality.

Pubs and restaurants in Tier 3 must remain closed except for takeaways and deliveries while those in Tier 2 can only serve alcohol with a “substantial” meal.

After confusion among ministers over whether a Scotch egg counted, Mr Hancock urged people not to “push the boundaries” over what was and was not permissible.

“A substantial meal is a well-established concept in hospitality,” he told Sky News.

“Of course, a Scotch egg that is served as a substantial meal – that is a substantial meal.

“What we need to do is not try to push the boundaries, we all need to take responsibility for our own actions.”