Hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people living in coronavirus hotspots could be forced to shield throughout the winter as Covid-19 infections continue to soar.
A government minister acknowledged on Thursday night that the situation was “getting out of control” once again, adding that Whitehall needed to take action.
Ministers are expected to outline a three-tier local lockdown system next week, which may see those most at risk if they catch Covid-19 being told to stay at home for months.
The Times said a decision on shielding had not been finalised and may be delayed because of fears for the mental health of those facing months of isolation.
Around 2.2m people in England deemed “clinically extremely vulnerable” were asked to shield at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, before the scheme was “paused” in July.
The report comes amid calls for the government to take swift action to curb the spread of the virus, after a further 17,540 lab-confirmed cases were reported on Thursday.
Skills minister Gillian Keegan told BBC Question Time on Thursday : “This is serious – it is getting out of control, and we have to do something to bring it back under control.”
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said coronavirus was “holding a gun” to Boris Johnson’s head over the restrictions being introduced, adding that the nation faces an anxious wait to see the full impact on the NHS.
He said: “In the north of England now, we are not that far away from the health service being stretched.
“Because even if we turn the epidemic around now, infections that occur today won’t go to hospital for another week or two.”
Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds, said the increase in cases should “serve as a warning to the government to take further action without delay”.
“It is clear that the consequences of not suppressing infections sufficiently over the summer may be severe if we cannot get on top of this increase,” he said.
MPs representing constituencies in the Midlands and north of England – where case numbers are highest – were briefed by the chief scientific adviser Professor Chris Whitty on Thursday.
One of those who joined the call said it was implied that the NHS may not cope if case numbers continued to rise in the areas.
And they told the PA news agency that they were shown a graph with early analysis by Public Health England suggesting that hospitality is a major cause of the infection spreading.
The government is reportedly planning to order the temporary closure of pubs, bars and restaurants in coronavirus hotspots, with ministers considering fresh financial packages to help the hardest hit areas and industries.