Plans also for ‘circuit break’ in which pubs and restaurants shut or close early for short term
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, has refused to rule out imposing nationwide restrictions across England to try to stop a surge in Covid-19 cases getting out of control, calling them the “last line of defence”.
Hancock was responding to reports that Downing Street is considering ordering restaurants, pubs and other hospitality businesses to close early – or shut altogether – as a short-term “circuit-breaker”. Households could also be told not to mix with each other.
Hancock told Sky News: “A national lockdown is the last line of defence and we want to use local action, and we want people to follow the rule of six, in order to avoid it.” But he said the government would “take the action necessary” to keep the public safe.
With the number of cases doubling every seven to eight days, experts on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) and the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) have suggested a new national shutdown, according to the Financial Times.
This could potentially coincide with the October school half-term to limit the impact on children’s education.
Ministers hope the “rule of six,” limiting the size of social gatherings across England, will begin to have an impact on the rate of increase in cases – but have declined to rule out acting earlier.
Government sources said there was “a lot of work” going on about what measures could be used to slow the spread of the disease and prevent the NHS being overwhelmed.
Nicola Sturgeon tweeted on Thursday that the Scottish government “will be considering carefully if further measures are needed to stem the increase”.
Anxiety in Whitehall has been exacerbated by the shaky state of the testing system. The test and trace boss, Dido Harding, told MPs on Thursday demand for tests was outstripping supply by three to four times – and conceded they had not anticipated the sharp increase as children returned to schools.
Hancock said: “This is a big moment for the country. We are seeing an acceleration in the number of cases. And we are also seeing that the number of people hospitalised with coronavirus is doubling every eight days. We are now starting to see the effects in hospital.
“The strategy is to keep the virus down as much as is possible whilst protecting education and the economy. “And doing everything we possibly can for the cavalry that’s on the horizon of the vaccine and mass testing, and the treatments that, frankly, this country has done more than any other around the world to develop.”
He gave a robust defence of the testing system, promising to increase coronavirus testing to half a million a day, up from a quarter of a million currently, by the end of October.
He said he was supporting the system, “by getting more machines into the labs, we’re installing those as we speak. We’re hiring more people to run them because it is a logistical exercise as well as the scientific parts of it, just to get the samples into the right slots”.
Discussions of England-wide measures come as new restrictions were expected to be introduced in Lancashire – with the exception of Blackpool.
Hancock announced on Thursday that the north-east would face some of the firmest rules yet imposed.
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