Matthew Taylor

Sunday shows round-up: New Covid strain ‘out of control’, says Hancock

Sunday shows round-up: New Covid strain 'out of control', says Hancock
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The Health Secretary joined Andrew Marr the day after Boris Johnson outlined a new fourth tier of restrictions. Tier 4 is designed to clamp down on a new mutation of the coronavirus that has been surging across the south east of England, and the news has wrought havoc on many families' Christmas plans. Hancock told Marr that people should assume they were carrying the virus as a default:

MH: The new variant is out of control... and this news about the new variant has been an incredibly difficult end to frankly, an awful year. It's important for everybody to essentially act like they might have the virus. That's the way that we can control it together.

'I'm really worried about the NHS'

Hancock cited the strain on hospitals as an imperative for the fresh restrictions:

MH: I'm really worried about the NHS. There are currently just over 18,000 patients in NHS hospitals with coronavirus. That is only just below the number that there were at the first peak... We're better placed than we were in the first peak... It's another reason that everyone needs to... just take that personal responsibility.

The police will 'police the law'

Tier 4 appears to have prompted a scramble for some to get out of the capital and other affected areas for Christmas before it is too late, as last night's crowding at St Pancras station highlighted. Marr asked Hancock about the role for the police in this scenario:

AM: Will the [police] be stopping people getting onto trains? Will they be stopping people climbing into their cars and driving off to the Midlands?

MH: Of course. It's the police's responsibility to police the law, and the law came into force in the early hours of this morning.

Schools closing again can't be ruled out

The government has been at pains to keep schools open throughout much of the pandemic, including during the second lockdown in November. However, Hancock conceded to Marr that he could not guarantee that schools could not be closed in Tier 4 areas if the phased re-opening plans were not fit for purpose:

MH: The plan... is for a staggered [re-opening] in order to ensure that there is testing so that we can isolate the children who are positive and therefore keep people safe.

AM: Is it possible that [schools] will close again as they did in the first lockdown?

MH: I've learnt not to rule anything out in this pandemic.

Commons vote on new rules expected in January

Hancock was also interviewed by Sophy Ridge. The government have implemented the new restrictions at speed, and therefore absent of parliamentary approval. Hancock said that such a vote was planned soon after Parliament returns from the Christmas recess:

MH: We didn't have time to recall Parliament from the point of decision at two o'clock yesterday afternoon... before implementing them in the early hours of this morning. Therefore, there will be a vote after the fact when Parliament comes back in January.

'350,000 people have been vaccinated'

Hancock did at least have some positive news on the rollout of the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which the UK's medicines regulator approved at the beginning of the month. Hancock also said that he was hopeful about the progress of the Oxford vaccine, though he would not be drawn on a date:

MH: The numbers are accelerating and rising fast.... As of eight o'clock yesterday morning, 350,000 people have been vaccinated... We've now got over 400 sites that are vaccinating... [and] every day we are opening more and more vaccination centres.

'Movement from the EU' needed for a trade deal

With the 1st of January fast approaching, the interview did touch on the post-Brexit trade talks with the EU, which remain in much the same position as the previous week. With another deadline pencilled in for tonight, Hancock cited the EU's demands on the critical issues of fishing and government subsidies for industry as 'unreasonable':

MH: I think we should keep talking and we should come to a deal. I think that it's just so important that the EU side makes the changes that are needed... We're ready for [no deal], but I hope we get the movement from the EU that we need.

Keir Starmer - 'It was obvious' that figures were going in wrong direction

The Labour leader has held a press conference in order to respond to the government's new Tier 4 measures, where he lambasted the Prime Minister for 'waiting until the eleventh hour' to make the decision. Starmer said that the restrictions were necessary and that Labour would support them in the upcoming parliamentary vote. The BBC's Nick Eardley asked Starmer if it was fair to judge that the government had acted too slowly:

KS: The new variant was spotted back in September. To put all of this on the new variant is wrong, The figures in the last few weeks have all been going in the wrong direction... The Prime Minister should have grasped this... It was obvious.

Lisa Nandy - 'I'm angry to be honest'

The Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy also joined Ridge and gave her take on the Prime Minister's handling of the spread of the virus over December, and referring to Wednesday's session of Prime Minister's Questions, when Johnson had accused Starmer of wanting to cancel people's Christmas plans:

LN: I'm angry to be honest... Every day this week we've raised with the government the fact that this new strain... surely means that Christmas plans had to be revised... Over and over again we've seen the same pattern - a Prime Minister who rejects the evidence, who ridicules and mocks people who raise concerns... and then ends up having to change his mind.

'We want schools to reopen' without delay

Speaking to Marr, Nandy said that it was Labour's priority for schools to reopen as soon as possible, including in areas under Tier 4 restrictions. Earlier, Nandy told Ridge that if schools were closed then the country would be 'living with the consequences... for generations to come':

AM: Do you think that schools should delay their opening until the 18th of January or not?

LN: No. We want schools to reopen and children to be back in the classroom, but we want to make sure that happens safely, and we want the government to bring in much more support over the next couple of weeks to make sure schools can do that.

'We don't trust the Prime Minister' to get the right trade deal

On Brexit, Nandy maintained Labour's line that the party would hold out on endorsing any trade deal the Prime Minister might reach, even if they felt the alternatives were unthinkable. She told Ridge that this feeling could be ascribed to a lack of trust in Boris Johnson:

LN: We'd be minded to back a deal but... we want to see that deal first. We don’t trust that the Prime Minister will come back with a deal that’s in the national interest, but we've always said we think that a deal is absolutely essential [and] no deal would be a disaster.

Sadiq Khan - 2020 is 'worst year since the Second World War'

And finally, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan told Ridge (via a very shaky line) that London had not seen hardship of its current magnitude since at least 1945:

SK: It's the worst year we've had since the Second World War. Many of our sectors - think of hospitality, culture, leisure, tourism, retail - have suffered in a way that they've never experienced... Think of those who [are] falling through the cracks... I'm pleading with the government - don't turn your back on these people.