Health secretary Matt Hancock has refused to rule out a second national lockdown and said the government will “do what is necessary to keep people safe”.
When asked about the possibility of a two-week nationwide lockdown to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, he told Sky News: “The last line of defence is full national action and I don’t want to see that. But we will do whatever is necessary to keep people safe in a very difficult pandemic.“
His comments come amid a report that scientists advising the government have proposed a two-week national lockdown in October in a bid to curb the number of Covid-19 cases.
According to the Financial Times, experts on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-m) have proposed the move to coincide with the October half-term.
When asked about the likelihood of the scenario, Hancock said: “It isn’t something that we ever take off the table but it isn’t something that we want to see either, it is the last line of defence.
“The country once again needs to come together and recognise there is a serious challenge. That the virus is accelerating.
“Unfortunately, it isn’t just cases increasing, it’s also the number of people ending up in hospital increasing.”
Pressed again on whether a national lockdown was looming, Matt Hancock said: “We will do what is necessary to keep people safe.
“And the first line of defence is that everybody should follow the social distancing.”
His comments came as new measures aimed to curb the spread of coronavirus came into effect in the north-east of England, taking the total number of people across the UK in lockdown to more than 10 million.
From Friday, the new restrictions cover Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham.
Residents are banned from socialising in homes or gardens with people outside of their own households or support bubble, food and drink venues are restricted to table service only and leisure and entertainment venues must close at 10pm.
The changes are in addition to the six-person limit on social gatherings across England. Local lockdown restrictions are also in place in parts of Scotland, south Wales, the north-west and northeast of England, Yorkshire and the Midlands.
Lancashire is also expected to be placed under tighter lockdown measures after the county saw its largest daily rise in new cases yet.
Meanwhile the government is set to announce restrictions on care home visits in areas with high numbers of coronavirus cases. In areas subject to local lockdown, it is understood that care homes may be advised to temporarily restrict visits in all but end-of-life situations.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Labour warned months ago that unless the government spent the summer fixing the testing regime then we would face a bleak winter.
“The government ignored that advice, the testing regime is collapsing and so it is not surprising national restrictions are back on the table.”
The latest figures published on Thursday showed there had been a further 3,395 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, and 21 more people had died.
It brings the total death toll in the UK to 41,705. In separate figures published by the statistics agencies, 57,500 cases have been recorded where Covid-19 was mentioned on a death certificate.