British health secretary Matt Hancock has warned that the public face tight restrictions for months as the Dutch and Belgian governments banned flights from the UK to try to halt the spread of a new strain of Covid-19 discovered in Britain.
Mr Hancock, speaking hours after the imposition of tough new curbs — particularly in and around London — warned that there could be difficult months ahead until older and vulnerable people are vaccinated.
Prime minister Boris Johnson on Saturday scrapped previous plans to allow five-day Christmas “bubbles” of multiple households in favour of a single-day exemption. Under a new tier 4, covering 16.4m people in England’s south-east, households are now banned from mixing and non-essential shops and leisure facilities have been closed.
Mr Hancock said the government had faced no choice after data showed that the much faster spread of Covid-19 was due to the new more virulent strain, dubbed VUI2020/12/01.
“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,” he told Sky News, urging everyone in tier 4 to act as if they had the virus.
“The cases in the tier 4 areas have absolutely rocketed in the last few days — the last two weeks or so. We have got a long way to go to solve this.”
The Dutch government announced that from 6am on Sunday all flights from the UK were banned from entering the Netherlands until at least January 1.
It said it had acted after a recommendation from its public health institute and was now awaiting an “explanation of the epidemiological situation in the UK” from London.
The Belgian government said on Sunday that its own ban on flights and rail connections to and from the UK would begin at midnight.
The new variant of Covid has been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and in Australia, according to Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid-19 technical lead at the World Health Organization. But she told BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show that it had originated in south-east England.
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party, warned people to expect the new curbs to last a long time. “It’s a false promise to pretend these restrictions are going to be lifted or change in two weeks because I don’t think they are,” he said at a press conference.
Mr Johnson said on Saturday that the new strain of Covid-19 could be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the previous variant.
His overnight imposition of new curbs prompted a rush of some Londoners out of the capital and crowds at stations including Paddington and Euston. Mr Hancock criticised what he described as the “totally irresponsible behaviour” of those who had chosen to leave the south-east before it entered tier 4.
The announcements prompted anger from business groups, with retailers in particular raising alarm after having hoped to salvage their worst year in living memory in the pre-Christmas rush.
Ministers have not promised any extra compensation for companies forced to shut their doors once again.
But Sir Keir urged the government to reconsider the support for companies caught by the toughest restrictions. “The one-size-fits-all support isn’t good enough for those businesses, and government is going to need to look again at the plan. It has to help businesses through.”
Meanwhile, some Tory MPs called for a recall of parliament to debate and vote on the new measures, including Mark Harper, former whip and leader of the Covid Recovery Group of backbenchers. “These changes must be put to a vote in the Commons at the earliest opportunity, even if that means a recall of the House,” he said.
John Redwood, a former cabinet minister, said: “Recall Parliament. The government should consider other ways of tackling the virus, protecting the NHS and saving more businesses and livelihoods.”
But Mr Hancock said that while there would be a vote on the plans it would not take place until January.
While Mr Johnson’s new restrictions only relate to England, they have been taken up elsewhere in the UK with Wales entering tier 4 on Saturday night and Scotland announcing a travel ban from other parts of the country.