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Lockdown restrictions in England will remain in place for as “long as they are necessary”, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said, as he suggested there are no current plans to tighten existing rules.
Mr Hancock urged people not to “take the mickey” out of the restrictions, but said it was “impossible to know” when they could be eased.
“We will keep the restrictions in place not a moment longer than they are necessary, but we will keep them in place as long as they are necessary,” he told Sky News.
“These measures that we have got in place that we hope to be able to lift – and we should be able to lift, when we have been able to protect through vaccination those who are vulnerable – right now, the vaccination is not in a position to do that.”
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Hancock said the current rules were always “under review” but “what really matters now is the degree to which everybody follows the existing rules.”
He added: “Of course you can always make changes at the margin, but we brought in a very significant restriction, the stay at home measures… It is possible then to make further restrictions, but what I’d say is that the most important thing is compliance with the existing measures, that’s the thing that is going to make the difference.”
Asked if he would specifically change the rule on people meeting one other person outside, he said: “We always keep these things under review, but you’ve got to balance the downsides.”
He said the rule on exercising with one other person “is clear”, but he was “very reluctant to remove this rule” because for some people, such as those living alone, it is an “absolute lifeline”.
Mr Hancock added that when two people meet for socially distanced exercise, the “likelihood of spread from people who are following that rule is very, very small”.
But he said some were clearly “stretching that rule”, adding: “People should not take the mickey out of the rules and they shouldn’t stretch the rules, people should respect the rules, because they’re there for a reason and that’s to keep everybody safe.”
Asked if the UK has now hit the peak of this wave, as some data may suggest, Mr Hancock said: “Well, I want it to be.
“But again, that comes down to the behaviour of everyone.
“Together we can make this the peak if enough people follow the rules, which are incredibly clear.”
Pressed again on if this was the peak, he said: “Well we don’t know, we published the data every day. I hope that it is.”
Mr Hancock said sending patients to hotels was a “further back-up plan” for some step-down patients, but “it’s not something we are actively putting in place”.
And he said the NHS was ready to vaccinate people 24 hours a day, seven days a week if necessary.
“We’re absolutely up for doing that if it helps to speed up the vaccination programme,” he said.
“I can’t see that being the major factor, because most people want to get vaccinated in the daytime, and also most people who are doing the vaccinations want to give them in the daytime, but there may be circumstances in which that would help.
“And we’re absolutely up for that.”
Mr Hancock said the Government currently had as much supply of vaccines as “we were expecting”, and manufacturing by Pfizer and AstraZeneca is on track.
NHS officials have stressed that vaccines are currently being sent to those sites that can vaccinate as many people as possible, with more sites being sent jabs as the supply increases.
The NHS has also denied a report in the Telegraph that suggested the vaccine rollout was being paused in some areas to allow other parts of the country to catch up.
Earlier, Dr Daisy Fancourt, from University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology and Health, who has carried out a study on lockdown compliance, said people were following the rules in the vast majority of cases.
“We found that compliance has been improving month on month, and week on week, and actually it’s now back to the same levels that it was last May, so whilst we hear the stories of rule-breakers, actually the majority of the population are really playing their part at the moment,” she told BBC Breakfast.
She said rule flouting such as holding house parties was only being done by a “very, very tiny” percentage of people.
“What we’re seeing a bit more of is people bending these rules, so perhaps looking for loopholes, or slightly pushing the boundaries of the rules.”
Dr Fancourt said the rule that people are breaking most is meeting up with more people than they are allowed to outdoors.
Whilst the roll-out of the COVID vaccine is proceeding well, it's vital everybody follows the rules.
We must control this virus to reduce the very significant pressures on our NHS.
Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives. pic.twitter.com/aiDfkkGTgl
— Matt Hancock (@MattHancock) January 12, 2021
She told BBC Breakfast: “I think people are thinking they’ve got that added protection from being outside with increased air and ventilation, which of course is true to a certain extent, but actually I think now we’re looking at this new virus, we’ve got to be particularly cautious on this.
“We’re finding this across all age groups, so it’s not like there’s one particular group that are most likely to break this rule, but I think it’s one that people, if they’re looking to improve their own behaviours at the moment, it’s a really good one to try and tighten up on.”
Later on Wednesday, the Prime Minister will be grilled by senior MPs on the liaison committee after facing Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer during PMQs.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi and health bosses crucial to the jabs programme are also being questioned by the Commons Science and Technology committee.
With rolling out the vaccines key to easing lockdowns, the latest Government figures showed 2,431,648 in the UK have received a first dose.
As of Tuesday, a further 1,243 people in the UK had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, with a further 45,533 cases being confirmed by labs.
Meanwhile, the Scottish Government is considering further Covid-19 restrictions as the death toll from the virus passed 5,000.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will outline any changes to the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.
In Northern Ireland, chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride has said the current lockdown is likely to last beyond February 6.