England’s month-long lockdown could be extended beyond 2 December if necessary, cabinet minister Michael Gove has told Sky News.
Speaking to Sophy Ridge on Sunday, the Tory frontbencher also defended the delay in reintroducing the nationwide restrictions, which had been called by the government’s own scientific advisers back in September.
Tougher action was needed now because the “situation has been worse than any of us expected” and threatened to overwhelm the NHS, said Mr Gove.
Pubs, bars, restaurants and non-essential retail will close from Thursday for four weeks across England, with furlough payments at 80% extended for the duration of the new measures.
People will be allowed to exercise and socialise in public spaces outside with their household or one other person, but not indoors or in private gardens, and will be able to travel to work if they cannot work from home.
People will be able to travel internationally for work, but will not be allowed to go abroad for holidays.
Unlike during the first lockdown, schools, universities and nurseries will remain open.
Announcing the measures, Boris Johnson said there was “no alternative” to a second lockdown and that “no responsible prime minister” could ignore the rising number of coronavirus infections across England.
He also warned that, without action, there could be a greater number of COVID-19 deaths this winter than during the spring’s first wave of the pandemic.
MPs are expected to vote on the fresh measures on Wednesday.
Mr Gove said the government would review the data during November, adding he hoped the infection rate would be “significantly reduced” by the start of next month.
But he said it would be “foolish” to predict what would happen with the pandemic over the next four weeks, and admitted the lockdown may have to be extended.
Asked if the national restrictions could be extended, he replied: “Yes.”
He said: “We will always take a decision in the national interest, based on evidence.
“We want to be in a position where we can – and I believe that this is likely to be the case – have an approach where if we bring down the rate of infection sufficiently we can reduce measures nationally and also reduce measures regionally.”
Mr Gove said a regional approach was “one that wherever possible we want to take”, because it would allow the future targeting of “a specific upsurge in specific areas”.
His warning was echoed by former chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport, who said while the latest lockdown in England was “definitely” better late than never, it was “obviously a possibility” the restrictions could last longer than the first.
He told Ridge: “The lockdown is not as severe as it was first time round, so the only way to know is to see how quickly the new cases start dropping.
“As we know, there’s a lag between the case developing, hospitalisation and the horrible consequences of severe illness or death.
“It’s unlikely this time to come down quite as fast as it did during the first lockdown because we have got schools open.”
Pressed if the new lockdown could be longer than the one in the spring, Sir Mark said: “It’s obviously a possibility, yes and the only way to know is going to be to really count cases as accurately as possible.”
He also cast doubt on people being able to gather at Christmas, telling Ridge: “I think the virus is sublimely indifferent as to what day of the week it is and indeed whether it’s Christmas or any other festivals, so it does seem a bit unlikely that it’s going to be a completely normal Christmas, that’s for sure.”
Professor Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), has also suggested restrictions could be extended beyond 2 December.
Referring to the date, he told BBC’s Andrew Marr: “I think it’s useful, I just don’t think we can become fixed on it. We don’t know what the situation is going to be like in the last week of November and the first week of December, we all hope that four weeks is going to be enough.”
Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer said Labour “will support the government’s message” but called on them to fix the issues around the troubled NHS test and trace system.
He added: “They’ve promised so much and delivered so little.”
London mayor Sadiq Khan hit out at the government’s handling of COVID-19, telling Sky News: “Frankly I’m astonished that the government have surpassed themselves in the shambolic way they’re dealing with this pandemic.”
He added: “They got it wrong and they should just have the humility to say ‘we got it wrong’.”
Analysis: Prospect of open-ended restrictions likely to fuel backbench discontent
By Ali Fortescue, political correspondent
Last time the national lockdown lasted longer than expected, this morning we got the first clue that may happen again.
Michael Gove eventually admitted to Sophy Ridge that “yes” – lockdown could carry on beyond 2 December, and said the review will be “driven by the data” and the R number – the coronavirus reproduction rate.
It’s likely to set alarm bells ringing because we know the numbers can take a long time to come down and, as former chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport told Ridge, the R number is unlikely to come down as quickly this time.
Sir Mark said it is “obviously a possibility” that lockdown could go on for longer than the last one.
Yesterday, we were firmly told this was a time-limited intervention, and there was “hope” of family reunions at Christmas. Mr Gove’s words today are a clear contrast, and exactly what businesses and many conservatives fear.
Backbenchers are already grumbling, Tory former leader Iain Duncan Smith has described the lockdown as a “body blow to the British people”.
The prospect of open-ended restrictions won’t help.
With the backing of Labour, the government won’t lose the vote on this on Wednesday, but strains are showing on the Conservative benches and the prime minister’s “hope” for relief in December may well require a Christmas miracle.