COVID-19 restrictions are likely to be in force until Easter, Sky News has learned, as Boris Johnson heads for a Commons showdown with rebel Tory MPs over the new tiers.
Senior sources have revealed that even if large numbers of COVID-19 vaccinations begin at the end of January it will be Easter – on 4 April next year – before life returns to normal.
The stark warning, handed to the prime minister and senior ministers by government scientific advisers, contrasts with more optimistic forecasts by Mr Johnson in recent days.
The gloomy prediction coincides with a government fightback by the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove against rebel Tory MPs threatening to vote against the new tiers on Tuesday.
Writing in The Times, Mr Gove says every hospital in England faces being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases if MPs fail to back the government’s tough new restrictions in the vote.
Warning that it could be Easter before coronavirus restrictions are lifted, one source familiar with the government’s scientific advice told Sky News: “This has been the running assumption.
“If you think that vaccines will start going in arms in large numbers at the end of January, it will be Easter by the time life changes properly and there would be restrictions until then.
“The government has also been very clear that the restrictions will go to January and beyond.”
Earlier, during a visit to the Porton Down research laboratory near Salisbury, the prime minister raised the prospect of local authorities being moved into lower tiers in the review planned for 16 December.
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But the government’s scientific advisers have stressed that this is unlikely, particularly before Christmas, a warning that is likely to incense many Tory MPs ahead of next week’s vote.
Senior Conservative MPs are predicting a rebellion by up to 70 Tory backbenchers, which would mean the prime minister would have to rely on Labour votes to avoid a humiliating defeat.
In other developments:
- More than 1,300 people were wrongly told they had coronavirus due to a lab error with NHS Test and Trace
- The relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will increase infections “potentially by a large amount”, the government’s scientific advisers have warned.
- A COVID-19 vaccine could be available at hospitals in England in as few as 10 days, it has been reported.
Writing in The Times, Mr Gove revealed the decision to impose a four-week lockdown earlier this month was taken after scientists warned the lockdown rules were not enough to prevent the NHS from being “physically overwhelmed”.
He wrote: “Every bed, every ward occupied. All the capacity built in the Nightingales and requisitioned from the private sector too. The numbers infected with COVID-19 and requiring a bed would displace all but emergency cases. And then even those.
“Mr Gove said MPs should not fall for “comfortable evasions” that things were now different or put their constituencies ahead of the national interest.
“When the country is facing such a national crisis, the truth is that all of us who have been elected to parliament, not just ministers, must take responsibility for difficult decisions.
“COVID-19 is no respecter of constituency boundaries and the hardships we are facing now are unfortunately necessary to protect every single one of us, no matter where we live.”
Mr Gove described the new restrictions that will see the vast majority of England in tougher tiers as “grimly, inevitably, necessary” to prevent the NHS from being unable to treat emergency patients.
“The level of infection across the country remains uncontrollably and threateningly high,” he said. “Across the UK, around 16,000 beds are filled with COVID-19 patients, which compares with almost 20,000 at the April peak.
“From the current high base, any sharp uptick in infection could see the NHS under even more severe threat again.”
Mr Gove also rejected suggestions that the measures were economically damaging, arguing that without them “the economy would grind to a halt” as a terrified population stayed at home rather than risked going out without care.
He also accepted that the previous tiers “were neither strong enough to reduce social contact sufficiently, nor applied widely enough to contain the virus’s spread… and that is the difficult lesson we cannot unlearn as this lockdown ends”.
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