LONDON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - British Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned the new mutant strain of the coronavirus is "out of control" and suggested parts of England will be stuck in the new highest tier of restrictions until a vaccine is rolled out.
More than 16 million Britons are now required to stay at home as a lockdown came into force on Sunday (Dec 20) in London and south-east England and the government scrapped plans to relax rules on socialising at Christmas in an attempt to control the fast-spreading new variant of the virus.
The measures ban household mixing in the capital and the south-east, and restrict socialising to just Christmas Day across the rest of England. Residents across the country were told to keep to their local areas.
Mr Hancock said the new strain "was out of control".
"We've got to get it under control and the way we can do that, the only way you can do that, is by restricting social contact," he told told Sky's Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.
"Cases have absolutely rocketed, so we've got a long way to go," he said. "I think it will be very difficult to keep it under control until the vaccine has rolled out."
People in the new so-called Tier 4 areas "should behave as though they have it", he said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had originally planned to ease pandemic rules for five days during the holiday, but made an abrupt change of tack after emergency talks on the virus mutation with his top officials.
Emerging scientific evidence suggests the new variant - which Mr Hancock said has also appeared in Australia and continental Europe - can spread significantly more quickly than previous strains in circulation and is behind a huge surge in infections in recent days.
Most Sunday newspapers carried stories of people cancelling Christmas plans. Conservative member of Parliament Mark Harper, who represents a caucus that opposes lockdown measures, urged the government to summon lawmakers from their vacation so a vote can be held.
Mr Hancock said that a vote will happen in January.
"We made the commitment not knowing that there was going to be a new variant that spreads so much faster," he said, of the original plans. He said there is "no evidence" the new strain - VUI-202012/01 - is milder than the original virus.
He said that as at Saturday morning, 350,000 people had been vaccinated, with the ambition to reach 500,000 by the end of the weekend.
Keir Starmer, leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party, said while he supported the new measures, "yet again the prime minister waited until the 11th hour to take this decision.
"The alarm bells have been ringing for weeks but the prime minister chose to ignore them ... He told the country to go ahead and have a merry little Christmas ... and yet three days later he tells millions of families to rip up those plans," he told a news conference.
Soon after Johnson told the nation of the changes, some in London headed for the capital's train stations to try to travel to see relatives over Christmas, and there were scenes of crowding - something Hancock called "totally irresponsible".
He also said the government acknowledged that the economic impact of the new measures would be "severe" after the Confederation of British Industry called them a "real kick in the teeth" for many businesses.
But speaking on the BBC, Hancock said a new national lockdown was "not necessarily" inevitable to stem the rise in cases. "One of the reasons we brought in the strict travel movements in Tier 4 ... is to try to stop this new variant from spreading," he told the "Andrew Marr Show".