UK Covid live: cases hit new record high in seventh day over 50,000 ahead of PM lockdown address to nation

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “UK Covid live: cases hit new record high in seventh day over 50,000 ahead of PM lockdown address to nation” was written by Clea Skopeliti (now) and Andrew Sparrow (earlier), for theguardian.com on Monday 4th January 2021 19.04 UTC

The coronavirus crisis has reached a “critical point” and immediate and decisive action is needed, an organisation representing NHS trusts in England has warned .

NHS Providers boss Chris Hopson said NHS trust leaders are “clear” tier 3 rules are “insufficient” and believe tier 4 rules “appear to just slow down the rate of increase” rather than cut it.

The latest NHS England figures show a total of 3,145 admissions in England were reported for 2 January, passing the previous peak of 3,099 set on 1 April last year. The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital in England stood at 26,626 as of 8am on 4 January — a week-on-week increase of 30%.

Hopson said that, having spoken to trust leaders across the country, coupled with the latest statistics, “it’s clear we have reached a critical point where immediate and decisive action is now needed to stem the rapidly rising rate of infections, hospital admissions and deaths”.

He said: “Hospitals are filling up with Covid patients at a deeply alarming rate. Today’s figures show that, in the 10 days since Xmas, we’ve seen nearly 9,000 more Covid patients in hospital beds. That’s equivalent to 18 hospitals full of new Covid patients in just 10 days. Any changes must therefore have a significant impact as quickly as possible. Half measures at this point would be very dangerous.”

Hopson said the new variant had “changed the rules of the game”, adding: “We cannot continue on the current trajectory and must react accordingly.”

He added: “Today’s news on the first Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine doses being administered provides a really important, positive, context here. This genuinely is one more, time-limited, push to get through the next few months”.

Updated

Scottish MP Margaret Ferrier arrested over alleged Covid rule breach

The Scottish MP Margaret Ferrier, 60, has been arrested and charged in connection with alleged culpable and reckless conduct over an alleged breach of coronavirus regulations between 26 and 29 September 2020.

Welsh schools and colleges to move to remote teaching until 18 January

All schools and colleges in Wales will move to online learning until 18 January, the education minister has said.

In a written statement to Members of the Senedd, the education minister, Kirsty Williams, said: “The situation in Wales and across the UK remains very serious. Today, the four UK chief medical officers have agreed that the UK is now at the highest level of risk, Joint Biosecurity Council Level 5.

“In the light of that decision the Welsh government, in consultation with the WLGA and Colegau Cymru, has agreed that all schools, colleges and independent schools should move to online learning until 18 January.

“As a government we will use the next two weeks to continue to work with local authorities, schools and colleges to plan for the rest of term. This is the best way to ensure that parents, staff and learners can be confident in the return to face-to-face learning, based on the latest evidence and information.”

Updated

“Really major additional measures” are immediately needed to control the spread of coronavirus, with school closures being the “biggest lever” available, Sage member Prof John Edmunds has said.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine scientist told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “We’re in a really difficult situation.

“The new strain is significantly more transmissible than the old strains. So we have to take significant extra measures to stop the NHS from becoming overwhelmed with Covid patients. Unfortunately we are going to have to take some really major additional measures, I can’t see any other way out of it.

“The biggest lever that has only partly been pulled is school closures. That would have the biggest effect of a single measure and I can see that happening.”

He later added: “What we have to do now, and it’s horrible I know, but we have to take really quite stringent steps right now and as stringent as we can right now.”

Edmunds rejected suggestions that a lack of public compliance with restrictions is a major issue, saying: “I don’t think that’s a major issue myself, I think people are pretty compliant.”

Updated

CMOs: UK alert level should move to level 5

The UK’s four chief medical officers and NHS England medical director have recommended that the UK alert level should move from level 4 to level 5.

In a statement, the CMOs and director said: “Many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure. There are currently very high rates of community transmission, with substantial numbers of Covid patients in hospitals and in intensive care. Cases are rising almost everywhere, in much of the country driven by the new more transmissible variant. We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.”

The statement adds that despite “immense pressure” on the NHS, changes have been made so people can still receive lifesaving treatment, and stress that people should come forward for emergency care. People are advised to contact their GP or call NHS111 if they require non-urgent medical attention.

Level 5 is the highest alert level, and means there is a risk of the NHS being overwhelmed.

During the first lockdown the UK was judged to be at level 4.

Updated

Hello, I’ll be taking over the blog for the remainder of the evening ahead of Boris Johnson’s televised address at 8pm, where he will outline new measures to deal with the UK’s rapidly escalating coronavirus crisis.

The prime minister’s address comes as the country reports its highest ever daily number of new cases, with 58,784 further infections registered. As well as being a record rise, Monday’s figure is also the seventh time in a row that the daily number of cases has topped 50,000, which had never happened until last week.

The UK’s chief medical officers are understood to have agreed to raise the Covid-19 alert level to five – its highest – meaning there is a risk of the NHS being “overwhelmed”.

Updated

Arlene Foster, the first minister of Northern Ireland, has said that the region faces a “very dire situation” and that ministers will have “very difficult decisions to take” when they meet this evening. She told reporters:

It is very clear to me that we cannot keep going in the trajectory upon which we currently are, 1,801 cases today, something similar yesterday, over 2,000 the day before. We cannot keep going in this direction or our health service will fall over, it will not be able to cope with what is going on.

That’s all from me for this evening. My colleague Clea Skopeliti will be taking over the blog now and she will be covering Boris Johnson’s TV announcement at 8pm.

Arlene Foster at Stormont last week.
Arlene Foster at Stormont last week.
Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Covid hospital admissions in England now higher than during first wave peak, latest figures show

John Roberts, a contributor to the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group, points out that the latest Covid hospital admissions figures for England show that Covid admissions reached 3,145 on Saturday. That is higher than they were at the peak during the first wave of coronavirus (3,099 on 1 April).

Total Covid hospital numbers for England have also hit a new high, at 26,626. During the first wave they peaked at 18,974 on 12 April. That figure was passed on boxing day.

Updated

A member of the public returning a completed Covid-19 test at a testing station in Whitby today.
A member of the public returning a completed Covid-19 test at a testing station in Whitby today.
Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Two-thirds of schools for primary-age children in Portsmouth have closed their doors over fears of rising coronavirus rates, PA Media reports.

Despite the government stating that primary education should remain open, 30 infant, junior and primary schools in the Hampshire city, which is a tier 4 area, have decided to move to remote learning apart from for vulnerable children and key workers’ children.

A total of 13 schools have stated they intend to remain fully or partly open while two are undecided, according to figures released by Portsmouth city council.

Updated

EastEnders will start later as a result of the prime minister’s televised address to the nation at 8pm, PA Media reports. The BBC One soap was due to air at 8.05pm but will now air at 8.35pm.

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister, says her executive will be meeting later tonight, following talks with the UK government, to discuss further coronavirus restrictions.

There have been 1,801 further cases in Northern Ireland and 12 further deaths.

This chart, from the Northern Ireland dashboard, shows the trend for positive cases in the region. The green line is the seven-day rolling average.

New cases in Northern Ireland
New cases in Northern Ireland
Photograph: Department of Health, NI

Updated

Here are the latest daily coronavirus figures from Public Health Wales.

For comparison, here are the equivalent recorded case and death figures for Wales for the last four Mondays.

A week ago today – 2,273 cases, 15 deaths

Two weeks ago today – 2,563 cases, 10 deaths

Three weeks ago today – 1,228 cases, 33 deaths

Four weeks ago today – 2,021 cases, 2 deaths

Support for national lockdown up since Christmas and now running at 79%, poll suggests

According to a snap YouGov poll, members of the public support another national lockdown by a margin of five to one.

Some 79% of people either strongly (51%) or somewhat (28%) support the idea. Only 16% are either strongly (7%) or somewhat (9%) opposed.

This is an even larger margin of support for another lockdown than when YouGov last polled on this just before Christmas.

Today’s YouGov poll also suggests 69% of people think the government has handled the school re-opening issue badly.

According to the Financial Times (paywall), which says it has been briefed by “several Whitehall officials”, cabinet ministers agreed this afternoon that “primary and secondary schools would probably close until the mid-February half-term break”.

Schools in Wales will begin to reopen this month unless the evidence about the new strain of coronavirus changes, the country’s health minister, Vaughan Gething, has said.

Some schools in Wales are preparing to resume face-to-face learning as early as Wednesday, in line with the government’s current plan to allow them to choose when to reopen ahead of an expected full return by 18 January.

Gething said the government is still planning for schools “to open in a flexible way”, and that control measures to prevent the spread of the virus have been “largely effective”.

Unions have called for a rethink of the plan due to safety concerns. The Welsh TUC called for “a far more cautious approach” from the Welsh government, including moving all schools to home learning for most, so that only pupils who are vulnerable or the children of key workers return to school while the role of young people in transmitting the new coronavirus variant continues to be investigated.

UK Covid cases reach new daily record high at close to 60,000

The UK government has updated its coronavirus dashboard. Here are the key figures.

  • The UK has recorded 58,784 further cases. This is the highest daily figure ever for recorded cases (beating 57,725 on Saturday) and the seventh day in a row that the daily number of cases has topped 50,000, which had never happened until last week. Over the holiday period the number of cases being reported has varied more than usual day by day, but the number of cases reported over the last seven days is 50% higher than during the previous week. The trend is clear; cases are rising very sharply, even though the amount of testing being carried out has changed little over the last fortnight.
  • The UK has recorded 407 further deaths. That is the lowest daily total since last Monday (357) but, week on week, deaths are still up 21%.
Monday’s dashboard figures
Monday’s dashboard figures.
Photograph: Gov.UK

Updated

Starmer says school closures in England ‘now inevitable’

Sir Keir Starmer has said a national lockdown “in the spirit of March” is now needed, with schools closed.

Speaking to the BBC, the Labour leader said the government also needed to spell out clearly its plan to defeat the virus through vaccination with a goal of four million vaccines a week by February. He said:

The virus is out of control. The tier system clearly isn’t working and we all know tougher measures are necessary.

If we are asking the British people to be subject to tough national restrictions – and we are because that needs to happen straight away – then the contract needs to be that the vaccine programme is rolled out as quickly as possible, two million a week in January and double that in February. That needs to be the deal.

It needs to be back to the spirit of March. Now you see lots of people out and about, trains that are half full. We need very strong messaging about staying at home.

I’m afraid the closure of schools are now inevitable and that needs to be part of the national plan for restrictions. We need measures in place to protect working parents, to enable children to learn at home and a plan to get schools safely reopen.

Keir Starmer on Sky News this afternoon.
Keir Starmer on Sky News this afternoon.
Photograph: Sky News

Updated

Scottish business leaders have expressed alarm about the announcement of a new lockdown. This is from Tracy Black, the director of CBI Scotland.

Firms understand that a sharp spike in infection numbers require a swift response to protect public health. But news of a national lockdown will be a severe setback for Scottish companies trying to claw back losses from 2020 and vital trading over the Christmas period.

There’s now an urgent need for existing financial support to be unlocked, so companies can survive the Spring and beyond, and for Holyrood to clarify guidance on what constitutes an essential business.

And this is from Liz Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce.

Today’s news is another blow to the private sector’s recovery from this pandemic. Whilst we fully appreciate the need for the Scottish government to act in response to the worrying rise in Covid cases, we cannot ignore the direct impact this will have on business and livelihoods.

 

Updated

Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the Commons, has sent an email to MPs confirming that the Commons will be recalled at 11.30am on Wednesday. But he is urging them not to attend in person. He says:

As per my advice on the previous recall, I would strongly urge you NOT to physically come to Westminster to participate in any business unless absolutely necessary due to the current severe public health situation. Members’ staff should also be working from home and I have asked the house authorities to limit house staff on the estate to a bare minimum.

John Grey, 84, receives the first of two doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, administered by Dr Michael McKenna, at Falls Surgery on the Falls Road, Belfast.
John Grey, 84, receives the first of two doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, administered by Dr Michael McKenna, at Falls Surgery on the Falls Road, Belfast.
Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has called for more testing and tougher quarantine restrictions for people arriving in the UK. Speaking to PA Media, he said:

Other countries that have been affected have not allowed people to come in unless they properly quarantine for a period of time and there is proper testing. If you compare and contrast what happens at our airports in relation to the airports in, for example, Seoul, there is a big difference.

So I’m really frustrated, as the mayor of a city with a number of airports serving us – Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, City, plus the Eurostar – at the ease with which people can come in to our city, potentially with new strains of the virus …

I’m asking for much more strict controls in relation to those arriving in our country, including not least far more testing at the point of arrival and proper quarantining before they leave the airport firstly for the testing and before they can leave their homes.

Updated

Commenting on the news that Boris Johnson will make a TV address to the nation tonight, Sir Keir Starmer said:

I hope the prime minister has been listening to the clear calls for tough national restrictions.

This is what Starmer posted on Twitter around this time yesterday.

NHS England has recorded 376 further deaths of hospital patients who have tested positive for coronavirus. The details are here.

For comparison, here are the equivalent figures for the last four Mondays.

A week ago today – 318

Two weeks ago today – 198

Three weeks ago today – 179

Four weeks ago today – 190

The Scottish government has also published a four-page document (pdf) setting out the state of the epidemic in Scotland. It includes this chart which shows that (not for the first time) Nicola Sturgeon is tightening restrictions in Scotland beyond what is in place in England even though in England Covid cases are higher.

Case rates in different parts of UK
Case rates in different parts of UK
Photograph: Scottish government

This is from the BBC’s Nick Eardley.

As Eardley says, alert levels are not the same as tiers. The government defined five potential alert levels in May, when it published its Covid recovery strategy. Alert level 5 is the highest and it means that, as well as the virus being in general circulation and transmission being high or rising exponentially (the conditions that apply at level 4), “there is a material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed”.

During the first lockdown the UK was judged to be at level 4.

Here is my colleague Severin Carrell’s story about the new Scottish lockdown.

Here is the text of Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on this to the Scottish parliament.

And here is the guidance from the Scottish government explaining the new rules.

In her statement to the Scottish parliament Nicola Sturgeon said the most recent figures show 15% of coronavirus tests carried out in Scotland were positive. Yesterday the figure was 15.2%. These numbers are a sign of how serious the problem is in Scotland. Sturgeon has said before the World Health Organisation regards getting test positivity below 5% (which happened at times in Scotland in early December) as proof that an outbreak is under control. This chart, from the Scottish government’s dashboard, shows the trend.

Test positivity figures for Scotland
Test positivity figures for Scotland
Photograph: Scottish government

Johnson to make TV address this evening as No 10 says further steps needed to tackle Covid

Boris Johnson seems to have got the message. (See 2.39pm.) Downing Street has just announced that he is recalling parliament for Wednesday, and that he is making a TV address to the nation at 8pm tonight.

A No 10 spokesman said:

The spread of the new variant of Covid-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country.

The prime minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives.

He will set those out this evening.

Updated

Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, has told Sky News that he agrees with Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative former health secretary, about the need for the government to impose a new lockdown in England now. (See 12.37pm.) Hunt was “spot on”, Khan said.

These are from Prof Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology and neuroscience at St Andrews University, who, as well as being a good Guardian reader, is an adviser to both the Scottish and UK governments on coronavirus.

Turning back to England, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (Solace) has called for all schools to close to allow teachers to be vaccinated as a priority. As the Local Government Chronicle reports, Ade Adetosoye, Solace spokesperson for children and families, said:

The welfare of our children is paramount and one of the core functions of the state is to protect them from harm. In the current context the only way to achieve this is to close all schools and move to online learning for a period of time during which teachers should be fast-tracked for vaccination.

While such an approach is not without consequence or risk, the only way to reduce inequality in education long-term is to limit this ‘stop-start’ approach to school closures and openings.

Updated

Sturgeon says all over-50s and other vulnerable people in Scotland should get first dose of vaccine by early May

Sturgeon says more than 100,000 people in Scotland have had their first dose of vaccine. She says the AstraZeneca jab is being rolled out from today. And by the end of January the government will have access to 900,000 doses, she says (including the 1000,000 already delivered).

She says, following the new vaccine policy (ie holding back second doses), by “early May” everyone over 50, and everyone with underlying health conditions making them a priority, will have received their first dose of vaccine.

She stresses that these timetables are “heavily dependent on supply”.

Updated

Sturgeon says schools and nurseries will be the first places the government wants to reopen.

She says the government will consider whether teachers and childcare staff can be prioritised for vaccines.

Schools in Scotland to close for most pupils until 1 February, Sturgeon says

Sturgeon says schools will be closed for the majority of pupils until 1 February.

There will be exemptions for the children of key workers and vulnerable children, she says.

She says this is the most difficult decision the government has had to take.

Sturgeon is now giving the details of the new measures.

Delay “almost always makes things worse” in dealing with Covid, she says.

She says the decisions on schools will apply to all parts of Scotland.

But the measures she is announcing now apply to parts of Scotland in level 4 – ie mainland Scotland.

These measures will strengthen level 4. They will be in place for the whole of January, but could last longer.

First, the advice to stay at home will become mandatory. People will only be allowed to leave home if they have a reasonable excuse. And they should work from home if they can.

She says this will be a legal requirement.

The economy secretary will speak to businesses about these rules later today, Sturgeon says.

She says new guidance will be issued to people who have had to shield. They should stay at home, and they will all get a letter telling them this, she says.

She says from tomorrow only a maximum of two people, from two households, will be able to meet outdoors. Children aged 11 and under will not be included, she says.

Non-essential travel into and out of Scotland will not be allowed, she says.

And she says from Friday places of worship will have to close.

Up to 20 people will be allowed to attend a funeral, but wakes will not be allowed in January.

She says workplace canteens will have to enforce the 2-metre rule again; the 1-metre exemption will no longer be allowed.

Updated

Sturgeon says there have been 1,905 new cases in Scotland. And 15% of tests are positive.

She says no new deaths are reported today, but that is because registration offices were closed yesterday.

She says there have been 289 deaths since she last updated parliament before Christmas.

Updated

Sturgeon says new variant of coronavirus now accounts for almost half new cases in Scotland

Sturgeon says the new variant has changed the situation.

She compares the situation now to a race.

In one lane is the vaccine, and in another lane is the virus, which is now running faster because of the way it has changed.

She says the new variant now accounts for almost half of new cases in Scotland.

She says she is more concerned now about the situation than she has been at any time since March last year.

Nicola Sturgeon confirms Scotland facing new lockdown from tonight

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, is making her statement to the Scottish parliament now.

She says the cabinet has decided to introduce from midnight tonight a legal requirement to stay at home, except for essential purposes.

This is similar to the lockdown announced last year, she says.

Welsh lockdown restrictions set to last for whole of January, health minister says

Wales’s lockdown restrictions are almost certainly likely to last for the whole of January, the Welsh health minister, Vaughan Gething, said.

Gething also suggested that police should take firm action against people who were breaking Wales’ strict travel rules to visit beauty spots for exercise.

The Welsh government is due to announce later this week whether its alert level 4 restrictions will change this month.

Asked if the lockdown was likely to last into February and even beyond, Gething said:

I think it would be unusual and not what people expect for us to decide to come out of level 4 at the end of this week.

We haven’t seen the direct impact yet in our figures of the mixing that will have taken place over Christmas or those people who went outside the rules over new year.

Asked about reports of people breaking the rules by driving to beauty spots in Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons, Gething said:

If people are deciding to drive to go for a walk up a mountain I think those people know they are doing the wrong thing. My view is that we need to support the police in taking enforcement measures. Ten months deep into a global pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 3,500 people in our country, I have a great deal less tolerance of people who are knowingly doing the wrong thing.

Updated

Sturgeon expected to announce full lockdown for Scotland from tonight

Scotland will be placed in a full lockdown from midnight tonight to avoid the coronavirus pandemic spiralling out of control, Nicola Sturgeon is expected to tell the Scottish parliament this afternoon.

The first minister is also expected to announce in an emergency statement at 2pm that all Scotland’s schools will remain closed for the whole of January, shifting to online learning, because of the risks posed by the new Covid variant, B117.

The new “stay at home” rules, mirroring the very strict controls imposed last March, will also be legally enforced and greatly restrict who is able to travel, the Scottish government’s cabinet agreed earlier on Monday.

While Scotland has not experienced the sharp escalation in the number of people in hospital with Covid seen in parts of England over the last week, the number of positive cases has risen to new records every day, hitting 2,464 yesterday.

Updated

In her interview with Radio 5 Live, Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), was asked if vaccines would need to go through entire the regulatory process all over again if they get adapted to deal with a new variant of the virus.

It would depend on whether there was “a big tweak or a small tweak” to the vaccine, she said. But she said the MHRA was already looking at this issue. She said:

We’re already looking at whether we would need to do, as you suggest, a full relook, or whether we can have a way of amending or updating a current approval. And that’s all in hand at the moment. We’re looking to make sure this is done in the shortest time possible if it has to be done.

Some readers have been asking how many schools in England that were meant to open today have been closed. We don’t have proper figures yet, but this tweet, from Emma Parker, a member of the National Education Union’s executive, gives an insight into the situation in Durham. She says more than 400 union members have used section 44 of the Employment Rights Act to argue that going to work is not safe, and that there have been 67 school closures.

In an interview with Radio 5 live Dr June Raine, the chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), played down the suggestion from Boris Johnson (see 11.44am) that the need for batch testing was holding up the supply of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Asked about Johnson’s comment, she said:

It’s part of our end-to-end process where everything is thoroughly checked, the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control batch release biological medicines as their job and so that process begins very early, before approval is granted, to look at what is needed to do all the right checks and therefore at the time of approval everything is there and in hand.

Asked if the MHRA is able to do this as quickly as possible, Raine said:

Yes, and we have scaled up, in the fullness of time, if there are more vaccines, to be able to batch release all of them. I was really proud last Wednesday when we approved the AZ vaccine, the Oxford/AZ vaccine, that we had approved the first batch the night before. We are that nimble and that quick.

The MHRA is fully scaled up to do the batch testing that’s so important for confidence as the new products come through.

It’s a supply chain that goes right back from the manufacturer, right through to MHRA, and then on to the clinical bedside or where the vaccines are delivered, so we are a step on the road but our capacity is there, I’m very clear about that.

Asked whether it was reasonable to have a target of two million vaccinations a week, Raine said:

It is aspirational, but depending on the size of the batch, most certainly we have the capacity.

Updated

Rates of coronavirus have fallen in Wales but remain very high and the new variant is spreading quickly, the country’s health minister, Vaughan Gething, has said.

Gething told a press conference that cases of coronavirus in Wales “remain very high”, though rates have fallen back from “incredibly high levels” seen before Christmas. He said:

The overall incidence rate for Wales has fallen from a high of 636 cases per 100,000 people on December 17 to 446 cases today.

This is still far too high. There have been falls in most parts of Wales, except in north Wales, where we are seeing cases rise quickly. We believe this is because of the new fast-moving strain.

It’s too early to know if these falls are because of the Christmas period and fewer people coming forward for testing or if they are early, positive signs of a sustained slowing of this awful virus.

Hunt says delaying school and border closures for even one extra day will cause ‘many avoidable deaths’

Jeremy Hunt, the former Conservative health secretary who now chairs the Commons health committee, is calling for what would effectively be a full lockdown in England now. He says schools and borders should be closed, and all household mixing banned, immediately. He says delaying even for a day will cause “many avoidable deaths”.

The trade unions may be surprised to find such a senior Conservative taking their side so clearly in their dispute with the government over schools reopening. (See 10.49am.)

Hunt has made his arguments on Twitter.

Updated

In Cardiff Vaughan Gething, the Welsh health minister, is holding a briefing on coronavirus. There is a live feed at the top of the blog. Gething opened by saying that the vaccine was being rolled out in Wales, but that the country was “not out of the woods yet” because of the ongoing threat.

Boris Johnson claimed this morning that teachers are no more at risk of getting coronavirus than anyone else. (See 11.44am.) Responding to this on Sky News, Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, challenged the government to produce the evidence to support the claim. He also said that his union had evidence suggesting teachers are more at risk. He said:

We’ve been conducting evidence gathering from employers which does indicate that teachers and staff working in schools are contracting the virus at a higher rate than other adults in the local population.

So it’s just not true that schools can operate in a manner which is safe and coronavirus free unless there are tough measures in place to ensure the safety of those who are working there.

The government claim that teachers are not at greater risk is supported by this Sage report (pdf), which does not take into account the impact of the new variant of the virus.

In the comments BTL (below the line) some readers have been asking about a comment Matt Hancock, the health secretary, made on the Today programme this morning. In response to a question about the risk of children returning to school, he said:

On the substance of the question, it is clear that children are very, very unlikely to get this disease, and that is true, as far as we can see, with the new variant, as well as the old.

This is misleading because children do get coronavirus like other people. This report from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine says children are “typically less susceptible” to infection than adults. But the latest ONS Covid infection survey, released on 24 December, said “secondary school-age children continue to have the highest percentage testing positive”.

What Hancock probably meant was that children are very unlikely to get ill or seriously ill from the disease, which is true.

But the claim that the suggestion that the new variant does not make a difference is more contentious. An Imperial College London study (pdf) published at the end of last week said there was evidence of under-20s being more affected by the new variant than by the old one. But the authors said they could not explain why, and that it could just be that the new variant is more infectious for everyone, but that because schools were open in November when England was in lockdown, teenagers might have been disproportionately affected.

Johnson claims teachers at no more risk of getting coronavirus than anyone else

Here are some more lines from Boris Johnson’s interview for broadcasters at Chase Farm Hospital in north London this morning.

  • Johnson claimed that teachers were at no more risk of getting coronavirus than anyone else. He said:

The risk to teachers, and of course we will do everything we can to protect teachers, but the risk to teachers is no greater than it is to anyone else. The reasons for wanting to keep schools open I think are very, very powerful.

Matt Hancock made the same claim in an interview this morning. But both ministers seems to be relying on evidence on a Sage report that does not take into account the impact of the new variant of the virus. See 10.12am.

  • Johnson said that he regretted closing primary schools during the first wave of the pandemic and that closing them again would be a “last resort”. He said:

It’s very important to understand that back in March, one of the things I look back on with the greatest misgivings was the closure of primary schools because it’s so important for young people to get an education.

That’s why closing primary schools is, for all of us, a last resort. That’s why we are looking at everything else we can possibly do to avoid that.

I would stress schools are safe and the risk to kids is very, very small.

  • He said that the NHS had the capacity to administer two million doses of vaccine a week, and that supply was the issue. He said:

We have the capacity, the issue is to do with supply of the vaccine. It’s not so much a manufacturing issue although that’s part of it. Each batch needs to be properly approved and quality controlled.

Johnson says ‘no question’ tougher Covid measures needed for England

Yesterday Boris Johnson hinted that he would have to tighten coronavirus restrictions in England shortly, but he implied that this was not yet a certainty. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr he said:

It may be that we need to do things in the next few weeks that will be tougher in … many parts of the country … I’m fully, fully reconciled to that. And I bet the people of this country are reconciled to that.

This morning he seems to have firmed up his view; stricter measures are now inevitable, he said. Speaking in an interview on a visit to Chase Farm Hospital in north London, he said:

We’ve already got a lot of the country in tier 4, some of it in tier 3. What we’ve been waiting for is to see the impact of the tier 4 measures on the virus. It’s a bit unclear still at the moment.

But I think, if you look at the numbers, there’s no question that we’re going to have to take tougher measures, and we’ll be announcing those in due course.

I will post more from his interview shortly.

Boris Johnson interviewed on Sky News
Boris Johnson interviewed on Sky News
Photograph: Sky News

The leader of Birmingham city council has demanded a new national lockdown and the closure of all primary and special schools. Speaking on BBC WM, Ian Ward said the authority would back any headteacher who decided not to open to pupils on safety grounds. He said:

At the moment I don’t know how many primary schools won’t be reopening but we will be collating that data as we go through the morning.

We are advising all primary schools and special schools to carry out a risk assessment and to determine whether it’s safe to reopen for the spring term.

If that risk assessment indicates it’s not safe for schools to reopen then Birmingham City Council will stand behind teaching staff in making that decision.

Birmingham’s current case rate was 429 per 100,000 people for the week to December 29, a rise of 36 per cent. Neighbouring Wolverhampton has recorded 568 cases per 100,000 people.

Universities Hospital Birmingham currently has almost 1,500 staff off work, with more than 43% of absences linked to Covid-19. According to the Birmingham Mail, 98% of ITU (intensive therapy unit) beds in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital are occupied, and 100% of ITU beds at City and Sandwell occupied.

Ward said:

We know from London that once the new variant is in schools it will spread and then pupils will then take their virus back to the family home.

So we are in a really really serious situation and the government needs to recognise that and they need to accept that in all tier 4 areas primary schools and special schools will have to close.

Ambulances and a police car are seen outside the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham on New Year’s eve.
Ambulances and a police car are seen outside the Queen Elizabeth hospital Birmingham on New Year’s Eve.
Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Updated

PM urged by unions to keep English schools closed for most pupils pending safety review

The three biggest teaching unions in England, the NEU, the NASUWT and the NAHT, as well as three big unions representing non-teaching staff working in schools, the GMB, Unison and Unite, have put out a joint statement urging the government to “pause” the reopening of schools while their Covid security is reviewed. It says:

The government’s chaotic handling of the opening of schools has caused confusion for teachers, school staff and parents alike. Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic.

Unions have called for a pause in the reopening of schools for anyone other than vulnerable children and children of key workers, and a move to remote learning for all while Covid-secure working arrangements are reviewed. All school staff continuing to work in schools should be given priority access to Covid-19 vaccinations.

Instead of casually asserting that schools are safe, the prime minister should sit down with unions to discuss a joint approach to ensuring safe working arrangements in all schools and prioritising enabling all pupils have the equipment and access they need to receive a high standard of remote learning until the safety of them and the staff in their school can be guaranteed.

Backing the initiative, Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, said:

The government’s own advice from Sage (pdf) makes it clear that opening schools to all pupils now risks increasing the infection rate. That’s in no-one’s interests.

Instead of creating chaos for parents and exposing workers to risks, the prime minister should be talking to trade unions about what steps are needed to make sure all schools are Covid-secure.

Updated

Boris Johnson has been visiting a hospital in north London today to see people being injected with the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.

Boris Johnson having his temperature checked during a visit to Chase Farm Hospital in north London this morning.
Boris Johnson having his temperature checked during a visit to Chase Farm Hospital in north London this morning.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images
Johnson watching as junior sister Susan Cole is injected with the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine during a visit to Chase Farm Hospital in north London, part of the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.
Johnson watching as junior sister Susan Cole is injected with the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

Updated

Matt Hancock’s morning interviews – Summary and analysis

You can tell the news cycle is getting back to normal after the Christmas and new year holiday because Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was all over the airwaves this morning giving interviews. Over the last year it has seemed at times as if he has never been off air. Here are the main points he was making.

Whereas the old Tier 3 was able to contain the old variant, that is proving increasingly difficult in all parts of the country.

Following the new restrictions announced last week, 78% of England is already under tier 4 restrictions. Everywhere else is in tier 3, apart from the Isles of Scilly, which are in tier 1.

  • He confirmed that the government was not ruling out a further national lockdown for England.
  • He rejected claims that the government was being too slow in tightening restrictions. When asked on Sky News why he had waited to put areas into tier 4, Hancock replied:

We’ve acted very rapidly to put areas into tier 4 and obviously we keep that data under review all the time … And we then act very fast. For instance, when we saw the new variant arrive, and we got the advice on the fact that it’s more contagious, we then acted within 24 hours.

But the opposition parties have repeatedly argued that the UK government has been too slow in tightening restrictions. In Scotland the parliament has been recalled to hear a statement on tightening rules (something that has not happened in London, where the Commons recess has been extended until Monday next week) and Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, yesterday urged Boris Johnson to impose a new national lockdown within 24 hours.

  • Hancock explained why the new variant of the virus circulating in the new UK was more dangerous. He said:

This new variant is so much more easily transmitted, it’s so much more contagious. You only need to come into contact with a tiny amount of it to catch the disease. And that’s what’s made this period so much harder.

  • He said he was “incredibly worried” about the new variant of coronavirus that has emerged in South African. (See 9.20am.)
  • He defended the government’s policy on schools reopening in England, saying that teachers were no more at risk than other people. He said:

It is also clear that the proportion of teachers who catch coronavirus is no higher than the rest of the population.

Hancock seemed to be referring to this data, in a report (pdf) from Sage, the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, that was released last week. But this paper, dated 17 December, was drafted before data emerged on the new variant of coronavirus.

% of teachers and other professionals testing positive
Percentage of teachers and other professionals testing positive
Photograph: Sage
  • Hancock claimed that the government’s policy on schools was in line with public health advice. He said:

There is clear public health advice behind the position that we have taken and that is what people should follow because, of course, education is very important as well, especially for people’s long-term health.

This is questionable. Minutes of a Sage meeting held on 22 December (pdf) show the government’s scientific advisers think it will not be able to drive the reproduction number below 1 if schools stay open. The minutes say:

It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant. R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools …

It is not known whether measures with similar stringency and adherence as spring, with both primary and secondary schools closed, would be sufficient to bring R below 1 in the presence of the new variant. The introduction of tier 4 measures in England combined with the school holidays will be informative of the strength of measures required to control the new variant but analysis of this will not be possible until mid-January.

  • Hancock said the NHS would be able to carry out two million vaccinations per week if the vaccines were available. He said:

If the NHS needs to go faster, then it will go faster. If there were two million doses a week being delivered, then the NHS would deliver at that speed. That’s the critical question, but that supply isn’t there yet, and we are working very closely with the manufacturers.

  • He said the “bureaucracy” involved in signing up to be a vaccination volunteer vaccinator was being reduced. He said:

We’re going to reduce the amount of bureaucracy that is needed there, and I’ve been working with the NHS on that. For instance, there’s one of the training programmes about needing to tackle terrorism. I don’t think that’s necessary, we’re going to stop that.

  • He said that more than one million doses of vaccine had been administered in the UK already – more than in the rest of Europe combined. He said:

We’ve delivered more than a million vaccines into arms already. That’s more than the rest of Europe put together. I’m really proud of how the NHS have really risen to this challenge.

Updated

Nicola Sturgeon is expected to announce tougher Covid controls in Scotland later today, with her government considering plans to keep schools closed for the rest of January.

The first minister asked for the Scottish parliament to be recalled for an emergency session at 2pm on Monday, after the number of Covid cases continued breaking records over the weekend, with 2,464 confirmed cases on Sunday.

Sturgeon believes the new faster-spreading variant of Covid-19, B117, is largely to blame for the rise in cases, but the rate of hospitalisations has not yet reached critical levels in Scotland. There is speculation she may invoke a new stay at home order close to the national lockdown imposed in March 2020.

In a thread on Twitter, she said:

All decisions just now are tough, with tough impacts. Vaccines give a way out, but this new strain makes the period bet­ween now and then the most dangerous since the pandemic’s start.

So the responsibility of government must be to act quickly and decisively in the national interest.

Opposition leaders, who have previously attacked Sturgeon for a lack of full transparency with her decision-making, will call for Sturgeon to release the data and scientific advice underpinning any further restrictions.

Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader, said opposition parties should be briefed in advance of her statement so they could be properly prepared. He said:

What is clear is that we need to see an acceleration of the vaccine rollout and a step change in testing.

It is also clear that financial support from government has simply not been nearly sufficient to make up for the damage that lockdown measures have done to jobs, livelihoods and businesses. The SNP government must distribute additional funds to the front line now.

The government’s education recovery group is also meeting today, and is thought likely to propose extending the current closure of schools to pupils from 18 January by several weeks.

Willie Rennie, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, said:

Shutting secondary schools and even primary schools for longer will inflict a heavy price on the future opportunities for young people who have already lost out so much. So we need to see the evidence for such a decision. We also need a full joined up plan for childcare as more people are now working than in the earlier lockdown.

If we are to restrict people’s movement then we need to see what the benefit will be.

Updated

Matt Hancock ‘incredibly worried’ about South African Covid variant

Happy new year – although, “alas” (as the prime minister would say), that’s just a polite wish, and not an accurate description.

On the plus side, this morning an 82-year-old dialysis patient from Oxford has become has become the first person in the world to receive Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine outside clinical trials on the day its UK rollout starts. There is a full story here.

But on the minus side, Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths are now rising sharply and the outlook for the next few weeks is very grim. Here are three recent Twitter threads that explain why.

From Prof Christina Pagel, head of the clinical operational research unit at University College London

From Chris Hopson, head of NHS Providers

From Neil O’Brien MP, head of the Conservative party’s policy board

In his final tweet, O’Brien says “something big” is needed.

Yesterday Boris Johnson hinted that tougher lockdown measures could b e announced soon. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has been giving interviews this morning, and he has in effect backed that message too. “Each week we look at all of the areas of the country to check that we are in the right position in terms of the tiers,” he said. “It is a very difficult situation in terms of the growth of the virus.”

The situation in the UK has become much worse in recent weeks because of the new variant of coronavirus in circulation that is now dominant in some areas. But in an interview on the Today programme Hancock said he was “incredibly worried” about another new variant of the virus, one that has emerged in South Africa. He told the programme:

I’m incredibly worried about the South African variant. That’s why we took the action that we did to restrict all flights from South Africa, and movement from South Africa, and to insist that anybody who’s been to South Africa self isolates.

This is a very, very significant problem. In fact I spoke to my South African opposite number over Christmas, and one of the reasons they know they’ve got a problem is because, like us, they have an excellent genomic scientific capability, to be able to study the details of the virus. And it is even more of a problem than the UK new variant.

ITV’s Robert Peston posted this on Twitter to help explain Hancock’s comment.

Today the news is likely to be dominated by the ongoing uncertainty about pupils going back to school in England. And in Scotland the first minister is making an emergency statement to parliament. Here is the agenda for the day.

12pm: Downing Street is expected to hold its daily lobby briefing.

12.15pm: Vaughan Gething, the Welsh government’s health minister, holds a coronavirus briefing.

2pm: Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, makes an emergency statement to the Scottish parliament, which has been recalled from recess, about coronavirus.

Politics Live is now doubling up as the UK coronavirus live blog and, given the way the Covid crisis eclipses everything, this will continue for the foreseeable future. But we will be covering non-Covid political stories too, and when they seem more important or more interesting, they will take precedence.

Here is our global coronavirus live blog.

I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.

If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter. I’m on @AndrewSparrow.

Updated

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