With more than one in nine of the adult population – some 6.6m people – now having received vaccinations against Covid-19, Mr Hancock said that “the end is in sight” for the UK.
But he refused to give any timetable for lifting lockdown restrictions, insisting that ministers must wait to see how infection and death rates develop in response to the vaccination campaign and whether virulent new variants of the virus spread in the UK.
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And England’s deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries warned: “We are not out of this by a very long way.”
Expectations are high that ministers will on Tuesday step up the UK’s defences against new variants arriving from abroad by introducing mandatory quarantine in airport hotels for all new arrivals in the country.
Hotel chains say they are expecting incoming travellers to be told to self-isolate in rooms under security, with regular meals delivered, for 10 days at a cost of £1,500 or more.
Andrew Denton of Best Western said conversations with government and NHS officials had been accelerating over the past fortnight, adding: “We are expecting an announcement imminently and hopefully a green light so we can start helping.”
Mr Johnson confirmed the hotel scheme was being “actively looked at”, adding: “We have to realise there is at least the theoretical risk of a new variant that is a vaccine-busting variant coming in, we’ve got to be able to keep that under control.”
But Downing Street sources would say only that the government’s Covid Operations (CO) committee will “consider options”, which are also thought to include GPS tracking of arrivals or targeted travel bans on countries where dangerous new strains are detected.
Mr Hancock signalled his support for quarantine hotels – an idea which chancellor Rishi Sunak is also known to be sympathetic towards – telling a press conference at N6 10 that it was “reasonable to take a precautionary principle” on the threat of importing new variants from abroad.
Ministers will be summoned to the Commons on Tuesday to answer urgent questions from Labour both on the handling of borders and the return of all pupils to schools, which are currently taking only vulnerable youngsters and the children of key workers.
Boris Johnson is under intense pressure from his own backbenchers to name an early date for classrooms to reopen in England.
Headteachers have been promised two weeks’ notice, meaning that a decision to reopen after spring half-term on 22 February would have to be taken by the end of next week. Education secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to confirm this week that this timetable will not be possible.
Speaking during a visit to a vaccination centre in north London, the prime minister said parents “mustn’t assume” that school doors will remain closed until Easter.
But Downing Street dampened down hopes for an imminent announcement. A spokesperson softened the significance of Mr Johnson’s comment that ministers will consider the “potential” for lockdown relaxations at a review scheduled for 15 February.
And the prime minister himself said any easing would be done cautiously, saying: “I don’t think anybody would want to see the restrictions lifted so quickly while the rate of infection is still very high so as to lead to another great spread of infection.
“We want to see schools back as fast as possible, [but] we want to do that in a way that is consistent with fighting the epidemic and keeping the infection rate down.”
Despite falling numbers of positive tests for coronavirus, Mr Hancock said that numbers in hospital stand at around 37,000 – almost twice as many as at the first-wave peak of 19,000 in April last year– with a record 4,076 people on ventilators.
Health staff on Covid wards are “flat out and stretched to the limit”, said Mr Hancock saying it was “a duty on all of us” to support them by continuing to observe lockdown rules as long as it is necessary to keep a lid on the disease.
Public Health England’s Susan Hopkins said that intensive care units have more Covid patients than ever before, adding that death and hospitalisation rates would have to be “much lower” before experts could advise on a move back to regionalised tiers.
Latest figures showed 592 deaths from Covid reported on Monday, bringing the official total to 98,531 across the UK, with a further 22,195 positive cases confirmed by labs.
Some 6,573,570 people in the UK have received a first dose of the vaccine – a rise of 220,249 on the previous day’s figures – with jabs administered at a rate of 250 a minute over the past week.
Mr Hancock said he was “delighted” at the speed of vaccination of top-priority groups, which has already seen 78.7 per cent of over-80s receive their first jab and only “very, very low” proportions refusing to be immunised.
But he said the public must remain “super-careful” about social distancing and hygiene rules.
“We’ve all frankly sacrificed too much, and it's so important that we protect lives,” he said.
“We’re making progress with the vaccine. The end is in sight. We cannot put that progress at risk.
“There’s a promise of better days that lie ahead. We have to hold our nerve and persevere through this difficult winter.
“So it’s incumbent on us all, wherever possible, to stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”
Any relaxation of lockdown will be driven by conditions not timetables, with ministers responding to changes in death and hospitalisation rates, the emergence of new variants and the success of the vaccination programme, he said.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt urged ministers to pay the salaries of people told to self-isolate after coming into contact with positive cases, and to use GPS tracking technology and on-the-ground local authority teams to ensure that they stay at home.
The failure of compliance with self-isolation was “the biggest flaw in our current strategy”, said the Commons Health Committee chair.