Lifting Covid lockdown in England is a 'long, long, long way' off

UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned the government is a “long, long, long road” to lift restrictions on coronavirus lockdowns in England.

Mr Hancock said there was evidence that existing restrictions were having an impact as the vaccination program made “brilliant strides”.

Three quarters of all over 80s in the UK have now been vaccinated, a similar number in nursing homes.

However, Mr Hancock said the case numbers were “incredibly high” and the NHS remained under severe pressure.

“There are early signs that the lockdown is gradually bringing cases to a standstill, but we are far from low enough because the rate of cases has been incredibly high,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday.

“You can see the print on the NHS – you can see it every day.”

Mr Hancock said that while he was hoping schools in England could reopen by Easter, it would depend on the level of infection in the community at that time.

“We have to look at the data, we have to look at the effects of the vaccination program,” he said.

“The Secretary of Education (Gavin Williamson) has stated that we will make sure schools are given two weeks notice. I don’t know if it will be then or before. We have to watch the data. “

After new varieties of the virus emerged in Brazil and South Africa that may be less susceptible to vaccines, Hancock said the government would take a “precautionary” approach to protecting the UK border.

Ministers are expected to meet this week to discuss a proposal that people arriving in the UK should pay for quarantine at a given hotel to ensure they adhere to self-isolation rules.

Mr Hancock said there have been 77 known cases of the South African variant in the UK and nine of the Brazilian variant to date. He said that all cases of the South African variant involve travel.

“There’s no such thing as a community broadcast where you can find a case where you can’t find the link to travel. At the moment everything is travel-related,” he told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show.

He said the new variants were identified because both Brazil and South Africa had genome sequencing programs of “decent size” but other countries were less well covered.

“The new variant that I’m really worried about is the one that was not discovered,” he told Sky News.

“There are probably others who just weren’t picked up because the country doesn’t have this genome sequencing service.”

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