Sajid Javid has said Covid cases could go as high as 100,000 a day and warned restrictions could be reimposed, amid concerns about a winter surge in the spread of the virus.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday afternoon, the health secretary said the pandemic was “not over”.
In a toughening of the language from government, Javid urged the public to meet outdoors where possible, wear face coverings in crowded enclosed spaces and take frequent rapid tests.
“With winter ahead, we cannot blow it now,” he said. “Although vaccinations are our primacy form of defence, there are many more things we can all do to help contain the spread of this virus, like meeting outdoors where it is possible.
“If we all play our part, then we can give ourselves the best possible chance in this race, get through this winter, and enjoy Christmas with our loved ones.”
Javid added if people do not wear masks where they “really should” such as a “really crowded place with lots of people they don’t normally hang out with” then it was “likely we are going to have more restrictions”.
There are currently around 49,000 Covid cases a day in the UK. Ministers have so far rejected demands it implement its “Plan B” contingency measures for suppressing Covid.
But Javid said he was looking “closely at the danger” and had decided not to reintroduce restrictions “at this point”, leaving the door open to doing so in the coming weeks.
Plan B could include legally mandating face coverings in some settings, introducing mandatory vaccine-only Covid-status certification and asking people to work from home.
It came as the government announced deals have been agreed for two new treatments which could be used for some of those most vulnerable to the effects of Covid.
Thousands of courses of the antivirals have been secured to be ready for use this winter, subject to approval by the UK medicines regulator.
The treatments, from pharmaceutical companies Merck Sharp and Dohme (MSD), and Pfizer, would be aimed at those most at risk from the virus, including the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.