The education secretary has said he is “confident” the country will not move into another lockdown, despite most of the UK’s population already living under the highest tier of restrictions.
Gavin Williamson said: “This is a robust approach, so I’m confident that we won’t be moving into a national lockdown situation because the tiering structure is the right place to be.”
On Wednesday, millions more people in England were placed in Tier 4 restrictions, meaning around 78% of the population were subject to the harshest measures under the current system.
Watch: Minister ‘confident’ we won’t go into another national lockdown
Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales are all also back in lockdown, and scientists have warned January will be a tough month for the country.
Williamson told Sky News: “We’re taking the absolute right approach to pursue the tiering system.
“It’s really important that areas have the opportunity to move down the tiering system as well as having to sometimes move areas up the tiering system.
“We recognise there are impositions that this has on everyone’s lives but it is the right approach, it’s the proper approach.”
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling warned another lockdown was likely before the end of January.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Cases are rising in a really concerning way.
“So I suspect that unfortunately we will see a ramping-up even further of restrictions, probably more of the country being in Tier 4 or ultimately probably a national lockdown before we get to the end of January.”
The government also on Wednesday announced the reopening of secondary schools in England will be delayed, and in some of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19 primary school pupils will also not return to their desks as planned next week.
Students in exam years will return to secondary schools a week later than intended, from 11 January, while other secondary and college students will go back full-time on 18 January.
Primary schools in 50 areas within London, Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire will not reopen for face-to-face teaching to all pupils as planned next week.
However, children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters will still be able to attend lessons in primary and secondary schools.
Universities are being asked to reduce the number of students returning to campus from the beginning of next month, and those that do return should be offered two rapid coronavirus tests.
Williamson said one of the main reasons the return of students to secondary schools was being delayed was in order to give every school the chance to properly implement a mass testing regime.
He said he was “confident” the extra time would be enough for secondary schools to sort out their testing regime with equipment arriving on 4 January.
The education secretary added an extra £78m was being made available for schools with access to 1,500 members of the armed forces available for schools in “exceptional cases”.
“At every stage, we’re making sure that children are able to benefit from getting a brilliant education that we want all our children to get,” Williamson said.
The further tightening of rules came as another 981 people died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, the highest daily figure reported since 24 April, though there is likely to be a lag in reporting deaths over the Christmas period.
And a further 50,023 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK were recorded as of 9am on Wednesday.
According to the Department of Health, between 18 and 24 December, the weekly COVID-19 case rate in England rose to 402.6 per 100,000, a 32% increase on the previous week.