The second national lockdown in England could be extended beyond its initial four weeks, the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has admitted.
From Thursday people will be asked to stay inside their homes again to tackle spiralling coronavirus cases, with the restrictions set to last until 2 December.
The government will review them then, but after it said yesterday regions would return to the previous three-year system, Gove suggested today the toughest measures may remain in place.
Speaking to Sophy Ridge On Sunday after prime minister Boris Johnson announced the new national restrictions on Saturday, Gove said that it would be "foolish" to predict what would happen to the levels of coronavirus over the next four weeks.
He added: ”We want to be in a position where we can – and I believe that this is likely to be the case – have an approach where if we bring down the rate of infection sufficiently we can reduce measures nationally and also reduce measures regionally.
"Because the regional approach is one that, wherever possible, we want to take because again we recognise it may be the case in the future that having reduced R below 1, having reduced national restrictions, we may see a specific upsurge in specific areas which will require specific regional measures.”
He said that “with a virus this malignant, and with its capacity to move so quickly, it would be foolish to predict with absolute certainty what will happen in four weeks' time”, adding: “So therefore of course we will review what requires to be done but we have a clear plan over the next four-week [period] to support the economy and to protect the NHS."
Gove was speaking after Johnson set out the plan for another full lockdown to protect the NHS, warning it risked being overwhelmed by a second wave of the virus.
But there has been criticism of Boris Johnson for not taking similar action sooner, after the SAGE advisory group recommended a two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown back on September 22, something Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already implemented.
Gove appeared on the same show a fortnight ago arguing against a second lockdown, but defended his stance saying it "wasn't necessary" then.
However he said Covid-19 has been spreading "faster than predicted" since, and therefore the new measures are "vitally necessary”.
He said the projections about the spread of coronavirus last month had underestimated it, adding: "At the time that our scientific and medical advisers were talking about the future spread of the virus, there were a number of people, entirely in good faith, who questioned that and well actually the situation has been worse than any of us expected, and that is why action is now required."
Appearing after him on the same show, former chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport said it was "obviously a possibility" that these restrictions could last longer than the first lockdown.
He added: "The lockdown is not as severe as it was first time round, so the only way to know is to see how quickly the new cases start dropping.
"As we know, there's a lag between the case developing, hospitalisation and the horrible consequences of severe illness or death."
"It's unlikely this time to come down quite as fast as it did during the first lockdown because we have got schools open."
Asked if the new lockdown could be extended beyond the one in the spring, Sir Mark said: "It's obviously a possibility, yes and the only way to know is going to be to really count cases as accurately as possible.”
Johnson had suggested this four-week lockdown could help allow families to spend Christmas together, but Sir Mark said: "I think the virus is sublimely indifferent as to what day of the week it is and indeed whether it's Christmas or any other festivals.
“So it does seem a bit unlikely that it's going to be a completely normal Christmas, that’s for sure."
The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who has been calling for a new national lockdown, said his party would vote in favour of the latest coronavirus restrictions.
He told BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show: "Well these measures are necessary, everybody has seen the figures, the infection rates, the admission rates and tragically the death rates, and that's why three weeks ago we called for a circuit-break.
"Now at that stage the government rejected it out of hand, ridiculed it, now only to do precisely the same thing – but there's a cost to that delay."
"The lockdown now will be longer, it'll be harder, we've just missed half term and there's a very human cost to this.
"On the day that Sage recommended a circuit-break, the daily death rate was 11, yesterday it was 326, so there's a very human cost to this, but the measures are necessary.”
Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter at CSW's sister title PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.