The health secretary said case numbers are still “incredibly high” and the NHS remains under “enormous” pressure, as ministers grapple with how to counter the emergence of three worrying new variants.
“There is early evidence that the lockdown is starting to bring cases down but we are a long, long, long way from being low enough because the case rate was incredibly high,” he told Sky News's Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.
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“You can see the pressure on the NHS – you can see it every day.”
Mr Hancock said that while he hoped schools in England could reopen by Easter, it would depend on the levels of infection in the community at that time.
“We have got to look at the data, we have got to look at the impact of the vaccination programme,” said Mr Hancock, who said his own “formal” period of self-isolation ended on Sunday morning, five days after being notified of a potential risk by the Test and Trace app.
Following Boris Johnson’s announcement that the new, more infectious variant discovered in the UK may also be more deadly, Mr Hancock said scientists are “not exactly certain” yet how dangerous it is, but that one study indicated it is 10 to 50 per cent more deadly.
He rejected the idea that the prime minister’s alarming surprise announcement from a Downing Street podium had left people wondering what to believe, saying he didn’t think that was the case for the “vast majority” of the UK public, but that “communicating risk is challenging”.
England’s chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance has said that while the evidence remains uncertain, “instead of 10 in every 1,000 people in their 60s with Covid passing away, 13 or 14 people might be expected to die”.
“But in a way, for all of us, that doesn’t matter,” Mr Hancock said on Sunday. “What matters is we’ve got to get this virus under control and the only way you do that is by stopping the social contact and following the rules.”
The government is currently under pressure to adjust the rules on travel in a bid to control the new variants first found in Brazil and South Africa – the latter of which is being tested at Porton Down amid early, unconfirmed concerns it could be more resistant to current vaccines.
Ministers are expected to meet this week to discuss a proposal to require people arriving in the UK to pay to quarantine in a designated hotel to ensure they are following the rules on self-isolating.
So far there are 77 known cases of the South African variant in the UK – all linked to travel – and nine of the Brazilian, the health secretary said.
But he told Sky News: “The new variant I really worry about is the one that is out there that hasn't been spotted.
“There's probably those elsewhere that simply haven't been picked up because the country doesn't have that genomic sequencing service.”
Mr Hancock said he wanted to see the UK's genomic sequencing capability “made available across the world” so that emerging variants could be caught.
“In the meantime we've got to have a precautionary principle... so we've introduced pre-departure testing and we've also introduced checks on everybody to check that that has happened,” he said.
“It is absolutely vital that we protect this country from a variant that is not as well dealt with by the vaccine. We cannot risk the progress we have made.”
Additional reporting by PA