The government “should be able” to begin easing England’s coronavirus lockdown in March, a senior minister has told Sky News.
Michael Gove said the public should not expect a sudden relaxation of the COVID-19 rules, with restrictions “progressively” eased instead.
And he warned of “very, very difficult weeks ahead” as the country battles to reduce the spread of coronavirus, which is being driven by a new variant that has been judged to be between 50% and 70% more transmissible.
As vaccines continue to be rolled out, the country is in a “race against time” against the variant, Mr Gove added.
He acknowledged that the government’s new target of offering a COVID-19 jab to nearly 14 million people in the top four priority groups by the middle of February was “stretching”, but stressed it was achievable.
Asked how long the lockdown could last, the Cabinet Office minister said ministers would “review the progress that we’ve made” on 15 February.
He added: “We hope that we will be able to progressively lift restrictions after that but what I can’t do is predict – nobody can predict – with accuracy exactly what we will be able to relax and when.
“What we do know is that the more effective our vaccination programme, the more people who are protected in that way, the easier it will be to lift these restrictions.”
Pressed again on a timeframe for easing restrictions, Mr Gove said: “We will keep these constantly under review but you are absolutely right, we can’t predict with certainty that we will be able to lift restrictions in the week commencing February 15-22.
“What we will be doing is everything that we can to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated, so that we can begin to progressively lift restrictions.
“I think it is right to say that as we enter March we should be able to lift some of these restrictions, but not necessarily all.”
He was speaking after Boris Johnson introduced a third national lockdown in England, with people told to “stay at home” as they did during last March’s first shutdown.
The prime minister revealed the action in an eight-minute TV address on Monday night, after being told that COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly in every part of the country due to the new variant.
As of Monday, there were 26,626 COVID patients in hospital in England – an increase of over 30% in one week and now more than 40% higher than the peak of the first wave of infections last April.
There has also been a near 25% increase in the number of deaths in the past seven days, compared to the previous week.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told Sky News he has some “quarrels and criticisms” with the government over the latest shutdown, but added that “everybody recognises how serious this is”.
“This is a time where we all have to say we will support the restrictions and do what we can to make these work,” he said.
Sir Keir said he had “doubts” about the vaccination target outlined by the PM, adding: “This is a race against time – I want the government to succeed… and I will offer my support.”
It was also announced by Mr Johnson on Monday that all primary schools, secondary schools and colleges are now closed, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
Mr Gove has suggested that end-of-year exams for pupils will be scrapped, and said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson would update MPs on Wednesday on how youngsters will be assessed at the end of the year.
And in a separate interview, the Cabinet Office minister said a decision was due to be announced on whether the UK will require those entering the country at ports and airports to test negative for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has announced grants totalling £4.6bn to help struggling businesses.
It includes one-off top-up grants worth up to £9,000 for firms in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors to help nurse them through to the spring.
In Scotland, a lockdown for the vast majority of the country came into force at midnight.
Deputy first minister John Swinney told Sky News the measures will be in place for a “substantial period”.
“We’ve had to take these measures, we very much regret that we’ve had to take these steps… but it’s the right thing to do to protect the public,” he said.
The government in Wales announced that all schools and colleges will move to online learning until 18 January.
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster – who imposed a six-week lockdown from Boxing Day – said on Monday night the “stay at home” instruction would now be put back into law, with an update on schools to come on Tuesday.