Social Care Minister Helen Whately today hinted postcode lockdowns will be imposed by the Government to stop the spread of dangerous coronavirus variants when national curbs are eased.
The measures are said to be under consideration in Whitehall as Boris Johnson prepares to unveil his lockdown exit strategy on Monday next week.
Ms Whately appeared to confirm that localised shutdowns will be part of the Government’s tool chest moving forward as she said ministers had ‘learnt during the summer about how to manage localised outbreaks’.
Meanwhile, she also delivered a boost to families as she suggested care home visiting rules could be loosened within weeks thanks to the success of the UK vaccination drive.
Door-to-door testing and a tougher stay at home message have already been used in some areas to stop the spread of coronavirus variants
Ms Whately also suggested that care home visiting rules could be loosened within weeks thanks to the success of the national vaccination drive
Combatting the emergence and spread of new variants of the disease is viewed by ministers as crucial to staying out of national lockdown and to protecting the vaccine roll-out.
The Government has already used door-to-door testing and a tougher stay at home message in some areas to try to eliminate variants.
And it is thought the localised crackdowns will be a key part of the Government’s approach in the coming months.
A senior Government source told The Times: ‘Clearly it is not a problem at the moment because of the existing lockdown restrictions.
‘But there is a big question about what you do when lockdown does start lifting and we see variants that we have concerns about.
‘It is definitely something that we’re aware of that will need to be considered. But we need to work out exactly what the mechanisms are that we need to have in place.’
Another source suggested the details on postcode lockdowns could be hammered out in time to be included in the PM’s roadmap.
They told the newspaper: ‘We’re still on the question of is it going to be a blanket ‘if there’s a variant in your area, retain the stay-at-home and-get-a-test message’, or something different.’
It is thought that postcode lockdown rules could vary area-by-area depending on the risk posed by whichever variant has been discovered.
Mr Johnson yesterday said that his roadmap will be ‘based firmly on a cautious and prudent approach’ to ease national restrictions in ‘such a way as to be irreversible’.
Asked about the prospect of postcode lockdowns, Ms Whately told Sky News: ‘Well, I would say probably wait until next week when the Prime Minister sets out that roadmap for how we are going to come through it.
‘But we have clearly learnt a huge amount. We learnt during the summer about how to manage localised outbreaks and take that approach.
‘But I don’t really want to preempt what we are going to hear next week.’
Ms Whately also suggested that care home visiting rules could be eased within weeks.
The majority of care home residents have now had their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine and the minister said ‘I don’t see that we have to wait for the second vaccination dose’ and that she wants to ‘open up sooner than that’.
There are signs the UK’s coronavirus vaccine roll-out may be slowing after fewer than 280,000 doses were administered yesterday
She said: ‘I really, really want to open up visiting in care homes more. I mean, to be clear we have made sure that visiting can continue even during this national lockdown but I recognise it is not the normal kind of visiting, it is having to use screens and visiting pods or through windows if care homes don’t have those facilities.
‘Also, we have put funding into social care to help care homes have these facilities and have extra staff if they need to supervise.
‘But what I want to do as we come out of the national lockdown is also increase the amount of visiting.
‘I don’t see that we have to wait for the second vaccination dose. I want us to open up sooner than that.
‘But I will say with this as with generally as we come out of lockdown we do have to be cautious, most residents in care homes have only had their first dose and some of them only very recently so it will be step by step but I am determined so that we can see people, go back to even if it is to be able to hold hands again and see somebody who you haven’t been able to see very much in the last few months and over the last year, I really want to make that happen again.’
However, visitors to care homes will still be expected to wear PPE even when rules are relaxed.
Ms Whately told BBC Breakfast: ‘There is still a way to go to see, for instance, whether the vaccine stops people from being infectious and how it plays through.
‘Visiting will be taken step by step and we will, for instance, when people come back to more normal visiting, still be asking people to use PPE and follow those kinds of procedures.’