Matt Hancock has explained why the government is far from lifting lockdown restrictions in England.
The Health Secretary said there was evidence that the measures were having an impact, but the NHS was still under severe pressure and cases were still “incredibly high”.
But he added that the vaccination program was making “brilliant strides”. Three quarters of all over 80s in the UK have now been vaccinated, a similar number in nursing homes.
“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 Education Secretary (Gavin Williamson) said we will make sure schools are notified two weeks in advance. I don’t know if it will be then or before. We need to watch the dates.”
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 find a case where you can’t find the link to travel. Right now, it’s all 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 is there and that hasn’t been 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.”
Meanwhile, the UK’s assistant chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, has urged those vaccinated to continue to adhere to social distancing rules.
The latest government figures showed that the number of recipients of the first dose of vaccine across the UK exceeded 5.8 million, with a record of 478,248 in a single day.
However, Prof. Van-Tam wrote in The Sunday Telegraph that it was still not known whether people who received the sting could continue to pass the virus on to others despite being protected from illness themselves.
“If you change your behavior, you can still spread the virus, keep the number of cases high and put others at risk who also need their vaccine but are lower in the queue,” he said.
Another 32 vaccination sites will open across the country this week, including one at the museum that became famous as the location of the hit television series Peaky Blinders.
Sights include the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, featured on the long-running TV show, a racetrack, soccer stadium, and a former Ikea store.
Prof. Van-Tam has since fought back doctors who criticized the decision to extend the gap between the first and second dose of the vaccine to 12 weeks.
The British Medical Association has written to the Chief Medical Officer for England asking for a rethink. In the case of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine, the World Heath Organization (WHO) mandated a maximum gap of six weeks.
Prof. Van-Tam said widening the gap is the fastest way to get a first dose to as many people as possible as soon as possible.
He said, “But none of these (who ask sensible questions) are going to tell me, whoever should be on the risk list should have slower access to their first dose so that someone else who has already had a dose (and therefore most of them) protection) can get a second? “