Tough new coronavirus controls will have to remain for “some time”, Matt Hancock has warned as he admitted that a mutant new strain of the disease was “out of control”.
The Health Secretary said the country was facing an “enormous challenge” after scientists warned the new variant could be up to 70% more transmissible than the original virus.
During a round of broadcast interviews he said that everyone in the country needed to take “personal responsibility” for their actions to help curb the spread of the disease.
However, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Boris Johnson should apologise for his “gross negligence” after he failed to act earlier to curb the spread of disease.
Millions of families had their Christmas plans plunged into disarray after the Prime Minister announced on Saturday that London and the South East were to go into a new two-week lockdown in an attempt to get the disease back under control.
People across the rest of England were told that household mixing over the festive period would be restricted to Christmas Day only – a move quickly followed by the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales.
Welsh health minister Vaughan Gething told BBC News on Sunday that the new variant was “effectively seeded” across the country and was a factor in the rapid rise of cases in Wales.
Mr Hancock acknowledged that the speed of the changes had left people feeling “cross, frustrated and in many cases angry” but said ministers had had a “duty” to act when they were presented with the scientific evidence.
He said he was “really worried” about the NHS which was now treating almost as many hospital patients with the disease as it was at the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in April.
“The new variant is out of control and we need to bring it under control,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.
“We don’t know how long these measures are going to be in place. It may be for some time until we can get the vaccine going.”
He said that more measures were needed to control the new variant than were required for the original coronavirus.
“We know with this new variant you can catch it more easily from a small amount of the virus being present,” he told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.
“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.”
Mr Hancock insisted they had acted “very quickly and decisively” after ministers were told on Friday by scientists on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) that the VUI 202012/01 strain was spreading more quickly.
However, Sir Keir said the alarm bells had been “ringing for weeks” but that Mr Johnson – who said on Wednesday that it would be “inhuman” to cancel Christmas – had repeatedly failed to act.
“It is an act of gross negligence by a Prime Minister who, once again, has been caught behind the curve,” he told an online press conference.
“At the heart of the problem here is a Prime Minister who simply doesn’t want to be unpopular and therefore won’t take the tough decisions that are necessary until he is forced into them at the 11th hour.
“We can’t go on like that. I think that it is very important that the Prime Minister does apologise to people for his handling of this episode of the pandemic.”
Mr Gething said that the move to strengthen restrictions in Wales was due to the information that the new strain was leading to faster spread of the virus.
When asked if the new variant had reached Wales, Mr Gething said: “I’m afraid the new variant is here in Wales as well.
“The undoubtable truth is this new variant is effectively seeded across the country, so acting now takes account of the fact that this new variant is undoubtedly a factor – we can’t say how much of a factor – in the rapid growth in cases across south Wales despite the measures we have taken.”
Meanwhile, several European countries are imposing bans on flights from the UK in an attempt to ensure the new strain does not reach their shores.
The Netherlands is banning UK flights for at least the rest of the year while Italy’s foreign minister Luigi Di Maio also announced curbs. Belgium’s prime minister issued a ban for at least 24 hours while the situation was assessed.
Austria and the Czech Republic were also imposing new measures against UK flights, with Prague announcing stricter quarantine rules with all people arriving in the country having spent at least 24 hours in UK territory required to self-isolate.
Ireland’s health minister said there will be an announcement later on Sunday on potential restrictions for ferry and flight passengers.
The regulations creating a new Tier 4 in England came into force at 7am on Sunday and will be laid before Parliament, which is in recess, on Monday.
The statutory instrument was made at 6am on Sunday, and must be approved by both the House of Commons and House of Lords within 28 days, otherwise the change to the law is reversed as per a process known as the “made affirmative procedure”.
The announcements prompted a rush to the London train stations and by 7pm on Saturday, there were no tickets available online from several London stations including Paddington, Kings Cross and Euston.
Footage posted on social media showed large crowds at St Pancras station waiting to board trains to Leeds.
Mr Hancock said such behaviour was “totally irresponsible” while Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said additional police were being deployed to ensure that only who needed to travel did so.