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COVID-19: Restrictions likely until Easter as Gove launches fightback against Tory lockdown rebels

COVID-19 restrictions are likely to be in force until Easter, Sky News has learned, as Boris Johnson heads for a Commons showdown with rebel Tory MPs over the new tiers.

Senior sources have revealed that even if large numbers of COVID-19 vaccinations begin at the end of January it will be Easter – on 4 April next year – before life returns to normal.

The stark warning, handed to the prime minister and senior ministers by government scientific advisers, contrasts with more optimistic forecasts by Mr Johnson in recent days.

The gloomy prediction coincides with a government fightback by the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove against rebel Tory MPs threatening to vote against the new tiers on Tuesday.

Writing in The Times, Mr Gove says every hospital in England faces being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases if MPs fail to back the government’s tough new restrictions in the vote.

Warning that it could be Easter before coronavirus restrictions are lifted, one source familiar with the government’s scientific advice told Sky News: “This has been the running assumption.

“If you think that vaccines will start going in arms in large numbers at the end of January, it will be Easter by the time life changes properly and there would be restrictions until then.

“The government has also been very clear that the restrictions will go to January and beyond.”

Earlier, during a visit to the Porton Down research laboratory near Salisbury, the prime minister raised the prospect of local authorities being moved into lower tiers in the review planned for 16 December.

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But the government’s scientific advisers have stressed that this is unlikely, particularly before Christmas, a warning that is likely to incense many Tory MPs ahead of next week’s vote.

Senior Conservative MPs are predicting a rebellion by up to 70 Tory backbenchers, which would mean the prime minister would have to rely on Labour votes to avoid a humiliating defeat.

In other developments:

  • More than 1,300 people were wrongly told they had coronavirus due to a lab error with NHS Test and Trace
  • The relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will increase infections “potentially by a large amount”, the government’s scientific advisers have warned.
  • A COVID-19 vaccine could be available at hospitals in England in as few as 10 days, it has been reported.

Writing in The Times, Mr Gove revealed the decision to impose a four-week lockdown earlier this month was taken after scientists warned the lockdown rules were not enough to prevent the NHS from being “physically overwhelmed”.

He wrote: “Every bed, every ward occupied. All the capacity built in the Nightingales and requisitioned from the private sector too. The numbers infected with COVID-19 and requiring a bed would displace all but emergency cases. And then even those.

“Mr Gove said MPs should not fall for “comfortable evasions” that things were now different or put their constituencies ahead of the national interest.

“When the country is facing such a national crisis, the truth is that all of us who have been elected to parliament, not just ministers, must take responsibility for difficult decisions.

“COVID-19 is no respecter of constituency boundaries and the hardships we are facing now are unfortunately necessary to protect every single one of us, no matter where we live.”

Mr Gove described the new restrictions that will see the vast majority of England in tougher tiers as “grimly, inevitably, necessary” to prevent the NHS from being unable to treat emergency patients.

“The level of infection across the country remains uncontrollably and threateningly high,” he said. “Across the UK, around 16,000 beds are filled with COVID-19 patients, which compares with almost 20,000 at the April peak.

“From the current high base, any sharp uptick in infection could see the NHS under even more severe threat again.”

Mr Gove also rejected suggestions that the measures were economically damaging, arguing that without them “the economy would grind to a halt” as a terrified population stayed at home rather than risked going out without care.

He also accepted that the previous tiers “were neither strong enough to reduce social contact sufficiently, nor applied widely enough to contain the virus’s spread… and that is the difficult lesson we cannot unlearn as this lockdown ends”.

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Boris issued warning shot as Nicola Sturgeon outlines how she plans to secure independence

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Opening the SNP’s annual conference today amid the Coronavirus pandemic, Nicola Sturgeon stressed Scotland was ready to demonstrate its position on the world stage as an independent country. Ms Sturgeon said Scotland was on the “cusp of making history” as she hinted a second vote could take place as early as next year.

But Boris Johnson has insisted he will not hand her the power to hold a vote, even if the SNP wins a majority in next May’s Holyrood election.

Leader of the House of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg also said “Blairite constitutional tinkering” had weakened the UK Parliament and “helped to divide the United Kingdom.”

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Rees-Mogg, said: “The last Labour Government decided to take a wrecking ball to our constitution and made a bit of a muddle with it.”

He said some of their most “foolish interventions” were their “constitutional blunders” on creating the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

He concluded: “I hope that this Government find an effective way of restoring our constitution to its proper form.”

But Ms Sturgeon said: “The question for all of us as we look ahead to the election next May is this: who should be taking the decisions that will shape our futures?

“We know that it is the people who live here, wherever they come from, who can best harness Scotland’s immense human and natural resources to the benefit of everyone.”

She made clear this weekend and over the next few months – “let us reach out – to all of Scotland – like never before.”

She continued: “Let us demonstrate – with cool heads and with patient persuasion – that Scotland is ready to take its place in the global family of independent nations.

“Scotland is now a nation on the cusp of making history.


“Independence is in clear sight – and with unity of purpose, humility and hard work I have never been so certain that we will deliver it.”

Ms Sturgeon stressed the people of Scotland had the right to choose their future, and concluded: “Let’s now focus all our efforts on making sure we bring about that better country they and future generations deserve.

“An independent future lies ahead – lets grasp it.”

She added the primary focus was to eliminate “COVID-19 from our shores” – for which we have renewed hope – Scotland must be ready for what comes next. And I know we will be.

But last night, opposition members said instead of focusing on independence, the First Minister of Scotland to apologise for “broken promises to the people of Scotland”.

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Ian Murray MP, Shadow Scottish Secretary, said: “She is leading a government that is treating Holyrood with contempt, refusing to be transparent with voters.

“As her supporters gather to pat themselves on the back, hundreds of skilled workers are facing unemployment after the nationalists abandoned the green industrial jobs they pledged to protect.

“And the Scottish Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in test and trace failures, cover-ups, care home scandals, a litany of education failings, and a death rate that is among the worst in Europe.

“When she takes to the stage, Nicola Sturgeon should apologise for her broken promises to the people of Scotland.”

Scottish Conservative constitution representative Dean Lockhart, said: “It is clear where the priorities lie for the SNP ahead of their conference- another divisive independence referendum.

“Constant talk of another independence is completely reckless.” 

Anas Sarwar MSP, Scottish Labour’s Constitution spokesperson, added: “This proves that Nicola Sturgeon only has one priority – dividing the people of Scotland.” 

A total of 14 opinion polls since June have suggested a majority now favour Scottish independence, with 54 to 55 per cent backing Yes on average.

These polls have also suggested Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s unpopularity north of the Border and Brexit increasing level of support for independence.

Pamela Nash, chief executive of Scotland in Union, said: “Issuing a rallying cry for independence when people across Scotland are struggling with the devastating impact of the pandemic is therefore deeply insulting.

“This weekend, the SNP is only talking to itself – not to the country.

“Seeking to divide us with another referendum is the wrong priority, and it is not the priority of the people of Scotland.”

This weekend’s SNP conference has been marred by division on key issues including the debate on independence referendum strategy, with suggestions already put forward to have a “Plan B” option for a vote.

In a lecture ahead of the vote, SNP justice spokesperson and lawyer Joanna Cherry called for Holyrood to hold a second independence referendum without agreement.

Speaking last night, the QC and MP said: “It is my view that if the pro-independence referendum parties obtain a majority at the Scottish election next year and the PM refuses to come to the table to negotiate a second Edinburgh Agreement, the avenue which the FM contemplated earlier this year should be pursued.”

She stressed it “would require a carefully crafted bill to be piloted through Holyrood” and there would be “the inevitable legal challenge”.

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Michel Barnier to back down in Brexit bluff on fishing demands and offer UK ‘compromise’

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The Chair of the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU told Sky News that countries like France and the Netherlands could suffer if there is no deal reached on fishing. He added that a no deal Brexit is a bad outcome for the European Union. 

Mr Benn said: “I have always thought that it was possible to reach an agreement on fisheries.

“From the European Union point of view and those countries such as France, Netherlands, who have a great interest, if there is no agreement then they could lose access to British waters which they have fished in for a long period of time.

“So for them, the choice is no deal which is a really bad outcome and a deal in which there is some compromise.

“Because we know it will take time for the British fishing fleet to build up to catch the fish that are in our waters.

READ MORE: Barnier heads to London ‘exasperated and impatient’ with Brexit talks

“Fisheries is a very complex issue but that is the harsh choice that is facing the EU.”

He continued: “In the end, we all know that to get a deal a compromise will be required.

“It is not about Brexit, we have left the EU.

“This is about if a deal can be done to make the impact of Brexit which will be bad for the economy slightly less bad than it will be.”

Mr Barnier has said Brussels would be willing to give between 15 and 18 percent of fish quota caught in UK waters by European boats back to Britain under a deal.

His offer would be worth an estimated £105million (€117million).

John Balls, chairman of North Devon Fishermen’s Association slammed the offer during an interview with Express.co.uk.

He said: “15 and 18 percent? That’s rubbish! That’s an insult to the UK fishing industry.

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“What I find bizarre is he is offering us a fish quota which is in our waters.

“If the French are moved out, if the Belgians are moved out, if the Spanish are moved out and everybody else who’s in the EU, if anybody else thinks they’re just going to come into the waters which are now owned and governed by the United Kingdom that is not going to happen.

“They will have to come to the UK Government and apply for a licence to fish within our waters.

“Then we’ll worry about sorting what volume of fish they can take.”

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Brexit: Trade deal ‘still possible’, UK’s chief negotiator says ahead of face-to-face talks

A Brexit trade deal with the EU is “still possible” even though it is “late”, the UK’s chief negotiator has said.

In a series of tweets, Lord Frost said he was looking forward to welcoming EU negotiator Michel Barnier to London for face-to-face talks this weekend.

“Some people are asking me why we are still talking. My answer is that it’s my job to do my utmost to see if the conditions for a deal exist,” he said.

“It is late, but a deal is still possible, and I will continue to talk until it’s clear that it isn’t.”

But Lord Frost said “for a deal to be possible it must fully respect UK sovereignty”.

He added: That is not just a word – it has practical consequences.

“That includes: controlling our borders; deciding ourselves on a robust and principled subsidy control system; and controlling our fishing waters.

“We look to reach an agreement on this basis, allowing the new beginning to our relationship with the EU which, for our part, we have always wanted.

“We will continue to work hard to get it – because an agreement on any other basis is not possible.”

Boris Johnson has said “substantial and important differences” remain between the two sides.

“The likelihood of a deal is very much determined by our friends and partners in the EU – there’s a deal there to be done if they want to do it,” the prime minister said.

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Dominic Raab brings in new laws to ‘see off’ legal challenges over foreign aid cut

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Existing legislation allows a temporary reduction but the government will introduce changes because it cannot say when spending levels will go up again, Dominic Raab told MPs. Senior Tories and charities hit out at the decision to slash the budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of gross national income. Mr Raab said he regrets the £4 billion reduction but insisted it was vital that “every penny of public spending will rightly come under intense scrutiny” at a time of crisis.

He ruled out “salami slicing” all parts of the UK’s overseas aid spending and said funding will go on “our values and grounded in the British national interests”.

He said: “Britain is responding to a health emergency but also an economic emergency. Every penny of public spending will rightly come under intense scrutiny by our constituents.

“Given the impact of this global pandemic on the economy and as a result of public finances, we have concluded after extensive consideration, and I have to say with regret, that we can’t for the moment meet our target of spending 0.7 per cent and we will move to a target of 0.5 per cent next year.

“This is a temporary measure. It is a measure we take as a matter of necessity and we will return to 0.7 per cent when the fiscal situation permits.”

Mr Raab’s decision to legislate for the change is likely to spark a Tory rebellion.

The 0.7 per cent target was written into law under David Cameron and Boris Johnson’s election manifesto last year promised to keep it.

Conservative MP Anthony Mangnall said: “To say that I am disappointed in this decision is an understatement.

“I am horrified that we have decided to break a manifesto commitment and I am horrified at the message that this sends to the many women who have suffered such horrendous acts of sexual violence and conflict, especially given the fact that yesterday was the UN day for an international elimination for the violence against women.”

Conservative MP Theo Clarke said she is “deeply concerned” by the proposed aid cuts.

She said: “As a long-term supporter of our global Britain agenda, of which aid is a very key part, I am deeply concerned by the announcement … we will not be keeping to 0.7% next year.”

Conservative MP Jerome Mayhew said given the “parlous state” of the economy, it is a “necessary reflection of our altered circumstances”.

Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive of Oxfam GB, warned: “By choosing to buy military hardware rather than pay for clean water or medicines, the Government will diminish the UK’s standing in the world.

“MPs of all parties who believe in a truly global Britain or who have spoken out against breaking the UK’s promise to the world’s poorest people now have the chance to vote down this legislation and make the Government think again.”

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Sturgeon’s fresh demand for independence vote immediately shot down by No10 on BBC QT

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Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon said an independence referendum that could wrench apart the United Kingdom after Brexit should take place in the earlier part of the devolved parliament’s next term, which begins next year. But the SNP leader’s demand was immediately shot down in Westminster, with Business Minister Nadhim Zahani making a strong case for Scotland and Wales to remain in the UK on BBC Question Time. 

The Tory MP said: “Devolution worked for Boris when he was London Mayor, by focussing on what London wanted which is security, better housing and cleaner air.

“And I think devolution needs to be seen, people need to see it working for them.

“We are much stronger together.

“The internal market is probably the most successful market in the world.”

He added: “What people in Swansea, in Glasgow and London need to see is politicians working much closer together in these difficult times.

“Because we are much stronger united.”

If there was another referendum and if Scots voted out, it would mark the biggest shock to the United Kingdom since Irish independence a century ago – just as London grapples with the impact of Brexit.

The pro-independence Scottish National Party leader said she anticipates that a vote will take place “in the earlier part” of the next Scottish parliament, which begins next year.

“The referendum for a whole variety of reasons should be in the earlier part of the next parliament,” Scottish First Minister Sturgeon told the BBC.

Scots voted 55-45 percent against independence in a 2014 referendum but both Brexit and the British Government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis have bolstered support for independence among Scots.

The past 14 opinion surveys have shown that Scots support independence. Those surveys show support ranging from 51-59 percent though views on independence have been volatile over previous years with most polls in 2017-2019 showing Scots opposed to breaking up the United Kingdom.

Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party (SNP) is expected to perform strongly in elections to the Scottish parliament in May.

The SNP will argue that winning that election would be a mandate for another independence referendum.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the 2014 independence referendum was decisive and a once in a generation event, so should be respected.

His Government says there should not be another independence referendum in the near future.

But if Sturgeon wins the May 6 Scottish election, Johnson will have a difficult choice: refuse a referendum and thus allow Scottish discontent to simmer or allow a referendum which could break apart the union he says is so dear to him and his party.

The nations of Britain have shared the same monarch since James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603 and a formal union created the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707.

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Tory revolt: Boris forced to rely on Labour amid stunning backlash to new tier measures

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Fury over the Government’s new tier restrictions has sparked a stunning revolt among Tory backbenchers. Around 70 Conservative backbenchers are planning to rebel against the new measures, forcing Boris Johnson to rely on Sir Keir Starmer and the Labour Party for votes. The new measures, which will be enforced after the national lockdown ends, will see more than 55 million people will be placed into Tier 2 and Tier 3 measures.

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs and one of the rebels, told BBC Newsnight that the Government has made it “harder” to push the measures through Parliament.

Nicholas Watt, Political Editor of BBC Newsnight, said: “A growing rebellion for the Prime Minister, and he may have to rely on Labour votes to prevail.

“One Tory MP who is well disposed to Boris Johnson told me, this could be our Black Wednesday, the moment people look back and say, ‘we got it wrong’.”

Sir Graham told the programme: “I suspect that the Government would have had a much easier time if we hadn’t seen this strange decision to force almost the whole of the country into Tiers 2 or 3.” 

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He added: “Even Tier 2 is going to be immensely damaging for a lot of businesses and limit people’s freedom to meet their family and friends’ and Tier 3 is even worse, of course.

“By forcing so much of the country into those really tough restrictions, especially places where the rates of infection have been falling to much lower levels, I think the Government has given itself a much harder job.”

Earlier this morning, on Sky News, Housing Minister Robert Jenrick admitted there was no Plan B if the new restrictions were defeated in the Commons next week.

Boris Johnson has an 80-strong majority in the Commons, but if only 40 of his own MPs rebel, the Prime Minister will be forced to rely on support from Labour.

The tier proposals means mixing between households indoors will effectively be banned for the vast majority of the country.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the move was “necessary to protect the NHS and keep the virus under control”.

However, the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), made up of Tory backbenchers, described the new measures as “authoritarianism at work”.

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Tom Tugendhat, a senior Tory backbencher, said: “We went into lockdown at Tier 1 and came out at Tier 3. This isn’t working for us.”

Tory MP Steve Baker, deputy chair of the CRG, called the announcement “truly appalling”.

Harriet Baldwin, also a member of the CRG, said there was “is no logic whatsoever in having a month of lockdown only for people to have to live under an even more severe set of restrictions afterwards”.

Former Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood said he was “puzzled” as to why his city of Bournemouth was going into Tier 2, saying it would “cause further hardship for our hospitality industry”.

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Government muddying waters around its no new taxes policy, National Party says

A top Government minister is muddying the waters when it comes to Labour’s pre-election promise of not increasing income taxes during this term in office, the National Party says.

National has seized upon comments made by Revenue Minister David Parker this morning when he defended the Government directing Treasury to look into extending the brightline test.

“We were clear: no capital gains tax, no wealth tax, we didn’t say we wouldn’t tinker with the details of existing taxes,” he told the AM Show.

Parker was being challenged on the capital gains tax-esque policy this morning after senior National MP Simon Bridges accused Labour of breaking its pre-election promise of no new taxes this term.

“We’re not promising a new tax. The only thing that is being considered is whether we should extend the period for the brightline test,” he said.

Parker then said the brightline test was not a capital gains tax, it was an “income tax”.

But these comments appear to be at odds with comments by Finance Minister Grant Robertson before the election.

Speaking at the launch of Labour’s tax policy in September, Robertson was clear about his party’s plans on any further tax.

“Labour will not implement any new taxes, or make any further increase to income tax next term.”

National has taken issue with this, given Parker this morning described the brightline test as an income tax.

The party’s Shadow Treasurer, Andrew Bayly, said Parker’s comments show Labour is already wobbling on its election promise not to alter income taxes this term.

A spokesperson for Parker said extending the brightline test was not a new tax: “National is getting ahead of itself because no decision has been made.”

Earlier this week, Robertson revealed he had asked the Treasury for advice on extending the brightline test.

At the moment, the brightline test means if someone sells a non-family home within five years they have to pay tax on it.

Bayly said extending the test wouldn’t do anything to address the issue of house prices.

Act leader David Seymour made the same argument and said it was a “capital gains tax by stealth”.

Despite National and Act’s objection to the extension, both parties voted for the bill when it was introduced by the then National Government in 2015.

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Matt Hancock’s ex-pub landlord given test kit contract after WhatsApp message

Matt Hancock’s ex-pub landlord was awarded a test kit contract despite having no experience of producing medical supplies.

The Health Secretary ’s former neighbour Alex Bourne won the contract to supply tens of millions of vials for NHS Covid-19 tests.

Mr Bourne also supplies around 500,000 plastic funnels for test samples in a contract believed to be worth millions of pounds.

He ran the Cock Inn, near Hancock’s former constituency home in West Suffolk, and offered his services in a personal WhatsApp message.

At the time, his firm Hinpack produced takeaway boxes and plastic cups. Mr Bourne denies he profited from his personal contact with the Health Secretary.

The National Audit Office said PPE suppliers with Tory political connections were 10 times more likely to be awarded contracts.

The Department for Health and Social Care did not respond to requests for comment last night.

It comes amid government plans to implement a mass testing system, which is currently being trialled in Liverpool.

Mass testing could see Brits being able to use "freedom passes" for more freedom.

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Following the initial success in Liverpool, a further three towns are to begin mass coronavirus testing it has been announced.

Around 1,000 soldiers will be deployed to help more than 100,000 residents get Covid-19 swabs, a government source revealed earlier this month.

The move is to see if the mass-testing scheme aimed at identifying asymptomatic coronavirus infections in Liverpool can work in smaller areas.

A senior government source told the paper: "The point about mass testing is that if you can test a lot of people who have the virus, but don't have symptoms, and you can get them to isolate, you can reduce the spread of the disease."

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans for mass coronavirus testing, with rapid testing being offered to those in prioritised categories such as care home staff and residents, along with those working in food manufacturing plants.

Under new plans, those who are contacted under the test and trace system will no longer be told to automatically isolate for two weeks, but will be offered daily testing – and only made to isolate if they test positive.

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Matt Hancock told to resign over handling of pandemic – ‘Time for a new Health Secretary!’

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TalkRADIO host Mike Graham and Baroness Hoey discussed the UK Government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis as a three-tier system is set to be implemented across England following the end of the national lockdown next week. Baroness Hoey criticised the national lockdown’s ineffectiveness in Kent where cases have increased during November.  

Mr Graham said: “I cannot explain and neither can anyone else, why Kent’s figures have gone up so much.”

Baroness Hoey replied: “It just seems ridiculous given that there has been a complete lockdown.

“No one has been able to give satisfactory criteria of why they are deciding certain things.

“Obviously, the more people that are tested the more people are going to show up with Covid.

“But it does not mean that they have symptoms, and it does not mean that they are going to be particularly ill or even that they are going to pass it on.

“I have said before and I will say it again, I honestly think it is time for a new brood, a new Health Secretary.”

This evening during the Downing Street press briefing, Boris Johnson outlined the UK Government’s latest mass testing plan in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

The Prime Minister stated that regions will be initially placed into three tiers and explained how mass testing can rapidly reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

Mr Johnson said: “While that data is beginning to improve the virus is still prevalent and the faster we drive it down the faster we can lift restrictions.

“That is exactly what these new tiers are designed to achieve.

“While the previous tiers slowed the spread of the virus they were never quite enough to cut the R rate down below 1 and keep it there so areas did not escape the level they were placed in.

“Our new approach is designed to reduce R below 1 opening a path for areas to move down the scale as soon as the situation improves.

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“Crucially we now have the means to accelerate that moment of escape with rapid community testing allowing anyone carrying the disease including those without symptoms to isolate and therefore reducing the R.

“The truth is at least one in three people with Covid have no symptoms at all and may be spreading the disease without knowing they have got it.

“The only way to identify them and protect everyone is through mass testing.

He added: “Testing on this scale is untried but in due course, if it works where people test negative it may also be possible for families and communities to be released from certain restrictions even if their home areas stay in Tier 3.”

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