The UK government has refused to rule out a second national lockdown, after scientific advisers proposed introducing fresh restrictions to control the rising number of coronavirus cases.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, said on Friday he had “learnt over the past nine months not ever to rule anything out”, but added that a second national lockdown was not one of the options currently planned.
His comments follow a Financial Times report that leading members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-m) had proposed a two-week national lockdown to coincide with the October school half-term.
Mr Hancock warned that the country was facing a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalisations, but argued that since the vast majority of new transmission was occurring within social settings rather than in schools and workplaces these did not need to be closed.
“This is a big moment for the country, we are seeing an acceleration in the number of cases, we are also seeing that the number of people hospitalised with coronavirus is doubling every eight days,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.
“The strategy is to keep the virus down as much as is possible, while protecting education and the economy and doing everything we possibly can for the cavalry that is on the horizon of the vaccine and mass testing and the treatments.”
He added: “These can be done alongside restrictions of our social lives basically. That is the approach that we’ve been taking in the areas of local lockdown.”
In an earlier interview with the Today programme, Jon Ashworth, shadow health secretary, said Mr Hancock had been deliberately evasive on the issue of reintroducing lockdowns.
“As it happens, we asked Matt Hancock about this in the House of Commons about further lockdowns or further measures; he didn’t engage with the questions, he ignored the question,” the Labour politician said.
“We have always warned the government that unless you fix the testing and tracing system — we made these warnings some months ago — then infections will rise and the system will get out of control.”
One scientist who sits on Sage warned that if the R number, which measures how many cases are caused by one infected person, remained the same, the escalating crisis would “break” the NHS.
On Friday, the North East of England became the latest region to be hit with coronavirus restrictions. Residents in Northumberland, North Tyneside, Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead, South Tyneside, Sunderland and County Durham, are prohibited from socialising with people outside their household or support bubble.
Hospitality outlets have also been ordered to close between 10pm and 5am and operate a table service only.
Despite the increasing number of localised lockdowns, which also include swaths of Greater Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs at a Commons liaison committee meeting on Wednesday that a second national lockdown would be “disastrous” for the economy.
“I don’t want a second national lockdown — I think it would be completely wrong for this country and we are going to do everything in our power to prevent it,” he said.
The government has also announced the launch of its new adult social care winter plan, which will include an extra £546m for the infection control fund.
As part of the plan, designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus within care homes, free personal protective equipment will be provided to residents and workers, while a chief nurse for adult social care will be appointed to provide clinical leadership to the sector.
The plan will also include the creation of a new dashboard, which will act as a single point of information for local and national authorities to monitor Covid-19 outbreaks.