The approval of a vaccine will make “absolutely no difference” to the tough tiered restrictions which came into force in England on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said.
The Prime Minister warned it would be months before social distancing measures could be relaxed, despite the approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use.
MPs approved the new rules despite a rebellion by 55 Conservative MPs who voted against them and Mr Johnson will face another Commons battle next year if he wants them to continue.
Asked whether he expected the measures to be rolled over beyond their current expiry at the end of February 2, he told a Downing Street press conference: “We will judge the situation … on the basis of the data.
“But I think, for the time being, you have got to take it that tiering is going to be a very, very important part of our campaign against coronavirus.
“It’s absolutely vital that people stick to the guidance and follow the rules.”
Mr Johnson said that “for now” the vaccine “makes absolutely no difference”.
“We have got to focus on keeping the virus under control, getting it down – tough tiering, mass community testing,” he said.
But after “weeks, months of work” widespread testing and the vaccine would begin to play a role.
“If you imagine the graph of immunised, vaccinated, inoculated people going up one way, there will come a moment when we’re able obviously to start to relax the non-pharmaceutical interventions,” he said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that it was essential to maintain controls until there was a general rollout of a vaccination programme in the new year.
“We can see the dawn in the distance but we have got to get through to morning.”
Mr Hancock said the Government would consider allowing more localised measures when the rules come up for their first fortnightly review on December 16, potentially enabling some areas to move into a lower, less restrictive tier.
Meanwhile Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer warned he could push for a fresh vote unless the Government publishes a detailed sector-by-sector analysis by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy of the impact of the restrictions on the economy.
Writing in The Times, he said: “I do not want to go down that road, but I am prepared to do so in the national interest.”
Mr Johnson’s press secretary said there would not be any consequences for the 55 Tory rebels.
She said: “The Prime Minister respects them. He respects that this was and is an extremely difficult decision.”
Under the new restrictions, households living in Tiers 2 and 3 – covering 99% of the population in England – are banned from mixing indoors and there are strict controls on hospitality.
Pubs and restaurants in Tier 3 must remain closed except for takeaways and deliveries while those in Tier 2 can only serve alcohol with a “substantial” meal.
After confusion among ministers over whether a Scotch egg counted, Mr Hancock urged people not to “push the boundaries” over what was and was not permissible.
“A substantial meal is a well-established concept in hospitality,” he told Sky News.
“Of course, a Scotch egg that is served as a substantial meal – that is a substantial meal.
“What we need to do is not try to push the boundaries, we all need to take responsibility for our own actions.”