'Covid is back under control': Hancock says lockdown worked but insists tiers are essential

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand

Covid-19 is "back under control" thanks to England's lockdown, the health secretary has said, but the tiered system of restrictions will be essential to keeping levels of the virus down, he insisted.

Matt Hancock said cases of coronavirus in England have dropped by 30% in the last week, showing "national restrictions have been successful".

But he stressed the need for some restrictions to remain in place, saying that "while we can let up a little, we can't afford to let up a lot".

Mr Hancock pointed to the government's impact assessment in needing the new tiered approach, which says the NHS would soon be overwhelmed without the restrictions.

"It clearly demonstrates this action is necessary to avoid a much worse outcome - and we must be vigilant," the minister said.

"We can't risk letting cases rise again, especially into Christmas, and with the flu season around the corner."

NHS England national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said it was "crucial" to have Covid-19 infection rates under control going into the new year.

"Unlike the spring, when we were heading out of winter into the summer, we are now heading into the winter," he told a Downing Street press conference.

What can you do in each tier from December 2? The new rules in England at a glance:

  • Tier 1: Up to six people can meet indoors or outdoors. Pubs and restaurants can open, with last orders at 10pm and closing at 11pm.

  • Tier 2: No mixing indoors, apart from support bubbles. Up to six people can meet outdoors. Pubs and restaurants can open, with last orders at 10pm and closing at 11pm - but alcohol can only be served with a substantial meal.

  • Tier 3: No mixing indoors. People can only meet outdoors in limited places such as parks and public gardens. Pubs and restaurants must close, with the exception of takeaway sales.

In all tiers, non-essential shops, gyms, hairdressers and personal care services can open. People in all tiers to work from home where they can do so. Full details on what you can do in each tier here.

"The NHS is always at its busiest in January, February and into March. We see more infections, chest infections from other viruses and bugs, we see more slips, trips and falls.

"So, the pressure on the NHS builds. It's crucial going into that period that we have this under control."

Mr Hancock said the development of vaccines and mass community testing means the "light of dawn is on the horizon" but now is not the time to relax restrictions.

He said the R number - the rate at which coronavirus spreads - is below 1, meaning each person passes the virus to fewer than one other person, "but only just".

"The light of dawn is on the horizon, it's the moment to stand firm until the morning so we can look back and see clearly that everything we gave and everything we did, it was not for nothing but so we could save lives and build back better for everyone."

He said asymptomatic transmission still poses a "silent danger", and community mass testing is the way to tackle it.

Mr Hancock, who caught coronavirus himself early in the pandemic, urged anyone offered a test to take it, telling them "you might just save a life".

He said: "If you have Covid without symptoms and still infect others that is, of course, a silent danger.

"You wouldn't know that you're risking lives around you.

"So to everybody: if you are offered a test please take it, you might just save a life."

The press conference was held one day before MPs vote on whether England should return to a tiered system of coronavirus restrictions after lockdown ends on December 2.

There are up to 70 backbench Tories sceptical about the restrictions, and the government may have to rely on Labour votes to get the proposals through Parliament.

Appealing to Tories, he said voting for the tiered approach is the "best way to avoid a third lockdown".

His plea came as Boris Johnson said on Monday it would be wrong to “take our foot off the throat of the beast” now, with up to 100 Tories unhappy about the tiered approach for England.The Prime Minister acknowledged that “lots of people think that they are in the wrong tier” but insisted the measures set to come into force on Wednesday are needed to slow the spread of Covid-19.

In its impact assessment released earlier on Monday, the Government acknowledged the new controls will have a “significant” impact on the economy but said that allowing the disease to run unchecked would be “much worse” for public health.

A failure to maintain strong controls would lead to the NHS being overwhelmed and result in an “intolerable” loss of life, the analysis published ahead of a crunch Commons vote on the restrictions on Tuesday added.

The Prime Minister told reporters on a visit to pharmaceutical company Wockhardt’s facility in Wrexham, Wales where it is hoped the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be made, said “if we’re lucky” a coronavirus vaccine could be available “in a few weeks”.“This could – could, if we’re lucky, if everything goes right – be available just in a few weeks.

“This could – and I stress could – really be the salvation for humanity, these vaccines, not just this one but obviously all the vaccines that are currently being developed.”

He said the Government is announcing “extra cash” so the nation is ready to create vaccines for the next pandemic.

Watch the press conference in full: