MPs have overwhelmingly backed the latest lockdown measures as the UK Covid death rate reached levels not seen since the spring peak.
With Labour supporting the lockdown, the vote in the recalled House of Commons passed comfortably by 524 votes to 16, giving the Government a majority of 508.
Boris Johnson, however, did face rebellion within his ranks, with 12 Conservative MPs voting against the stay-at-home rules. They were joined by four DUP MPs opposing the regulations.
Former Tory minister Sir Desmond Swayne branded lockdowns a “complete failure” while Sir Robert Syms said the measures, which are in place until March 31, were “essentially a blank cheque for three months to Public Health England to do what they wish”.
The Prime Minister, addressing the Commons earlier on Wednesday, said the March deadline was “not because we expect the full national lockdown to continue until then but to allow a steady, controlled and evidence-led move down through the tiers on a regional basis”.
He added: “Our emergence from the lockdown cocoon will not be a big bang but a gradual unwrapping.”
In the face of pressure from senior Tories to commit to easing the restrictions – which came into force on Wednesday and were being voted on retrospectively by MPs – as soon as possible, Mr Johnson said there would be “substantial opportunities” for relaxation before March.
Mark Harper, ex-Tory chief whip and chairman of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said the lockdown restrictions should be reviewed “in the middle of February” once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated, as per the Government’s aim.
The result came as the Government said a further 1,041 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday – the highest daily reported total since April 21.
The figures continue to be affected by a lag in the publication of recent data and contain some deaths that took place over the Christmas and New Year period that have only just been reported.
Of the 1,041 new deaths, around a third took place before January 1, while some 100 took place in the seven days up to Christmas Day.
The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital in England has, meanwhile, reached a record 27,727 as of 8am on January 6, according to the latest figures from NHS England. The figure is up 22% on a week ago.
After the latest mortality figures were released, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said ministers had to shoulder some of the blame.
“This is a tragedy. It’s not bad luck. It was not inevitable,” he tweeted.
“The Government has been too slow to react. We now need a national effort to get our country vaccinated.”
Andrew Hayward, professor of infectious diseases epidemiology at University College London, said he expected coronavirus-related deaths to continue to rise and described Wednesday’s figure as a “grim milestone”.
The member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told BBC Radio 4: “I think sadly we can expect the number of deaths to continue to increase for the next few weeks because they’ll lag two or three weeks behind the number of cases in the community, and those have been increasing.
“I think the lockdown measures will turn that number of deaths around but it is going to take a little while.”
Prof Hayward said he supported the decision to change tact on the Covid vaccine roll-out strategy in order to give more people their first jab, calling it an “absolute priority to get as many people protected as soon as possible”.
The Government is giving the vaccine to as many priority patients as possible with a second shot after 12 weeks, rather than holding back supplies to offer a booster dose three weeks after the first jab.
The World Health Organisation has, however, said it would not recommend the UK’s approach, instead suggesting the interval between doses should be between three and four weeks.
Seven mass vaccination will open next week with sites in London, Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Surrey and Stevenage.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi admitted the target of vaccinating around 14 million people in the highest priority groups – including the elderly, those with clinical needs, care home residents and staff and frontline NHS workers – by February 15 was “stretching”.
Some 1.3 million people have already received either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca jab.
But Mr Johnson confirmed to MPs that just 10% of care home residents had received a vaccine, along with 14% of staff.
In other developments:
– The Metropolitan Police indicated a tougher approach to those flouting the lockdown with officers expected to be more “inquisitive” about why people are “out and about”.
– All scheduled GCSE and A-level examinations in Northern Ireland will be cancelled.
– Dr Andrew Goodall, chief executive of NHS Wales, said critical care capacity is operating at almost 140% of its normal occupancy.
– Simon Lebus, interim chief regulator of exams watchdog Ofqual, has warned of “challenges” in switching from exams to teacher-assessed grades for A-levels and GCSEs this summer, with the need to ensure schools across the country are “assessing…in the same way”.