Tough new coronavirus restrictions may have to remain in place until March, senior Cabinet minister Michael Gove warned, as England enters its third national lockdown.
In a televised address on Monday, Boris Johnson announced stringent new controls â including closing schools to most pupils â in an attempt to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed by a surge in new infections.
But, in a round of broadcast interviews on Tuesday morning, Mr Gove said relaxation of the rules may have to wait until the following month â and that even then some measures may have to remain in place.
âWe will keep these constantly under review, but we canât predict with certainty that we will be able to lift restrictions in the week commencing February 15-22,â he told Sky News.
âWhat we will be doing is everything that we can to make sure that as many people as possible are vaccinated, so that we can begin to progressively lift restrictions.
It came as the UK recorded 60,916 lab-confirmed coronavirus cases as of 9am on Tuesday â the highest daily total reported so far.
The Government said a further 830 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday.
New figures from the Office for National Statistics showed an estimated one in 50 people in private households in England had Covid-19 between December 27 and January 2.
It includes one-off top-up grants worth up to ÂŁ9,000 for firms in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors to help nurse them through to the spring.
The Chancellor was forced to defend himself and Mr Johnson against allegations that they have consistently been behind the curve on decision-making, telling reporters: âThe Prime Minister has acted decisively in the face of new information.â
Mr Sunak also said he would âtake stockâ of government support packages in Marchâs Budget, when pressed on whether he would extend the furlough scheme to prevent a wave of business closures and redundancies.
Mr Johnsonâs announcement came after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon imposed a lockdown on Scotland for the rest of January, with a legal requirement to stay at home and schools closed to most pupils until February.
Schools and colleges in Wales will also remain closed until at least January 18 and move to online learning, while in Northern Ireland â which is already under a six-week lockdown â âstay at homeâ restrictions will be brought back into law and a period of remote learning for schoolchildren will be extended.
The Stormont Executive is meeting on Tuesday to confirm details of the plan, which could run beyond January.
In his address, Mr Johnson warned the coming weeks will be the âhardest yetâ but said that âwith a fair wind in our sailsâ it should be possible to vaccinate 13 million of the most vulnerable people by mid-February, paving the way for controls to be eased.
The Prime Minister had previously strongly resisted calls to delay the reopening of primary schools in particular following the Christmas break â despite pressure from the teaching unions.
Mr Gove said they had been forced to act with a âheavy heartâ after the chief medical officers of the four nations warned there was a danger the NHS would be overwhelmed by the surge in infections caused by the new variant of Covid-19.
âIn the circumstances we felt that the only thing we could do was to close those primary schools that were open,â he said.
With the Government acknowledging that exams in England will not be able to go ahead as planned in the summer, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will address a recalled House of Commons on Wednesday to update MPs on how pupils will be assessed.
With MPs due to debate the new restrictions on Wednesday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer confirmed his party would support the Government.
He warned however that meeting Mr Johnsonâs target of vaccinating 13 million people by mid-February â including all over-70s â would not be easy.
âThatâs the ambition of the Prime Minister. I hope he is not overpromising. Itâs going to be a struggle and we need to make this work,â he said.
Dr Claudia Paoloni, chairwoman of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association, told BBC Radio 4âs Today programme: âWeâre now in a situation where the risk of overwhelming the NHS at this point, over the next few weeks, is very, very high.â
Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Governmentâs Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was important to learn lessons from the first wave of the pandemic.
âI think the lockdown announced yesterday will clearly save tens of thousands of lives. The threat weâre facing is at least as bad as we were back in March,â he told the Today programme.