Another national lockdown could be imposed as as « last line of defence » against rising coronavirus infections, Matt Hancock has said.
The Health Secretary refused on Friday morning to say how close the UK was to another wave of country-wide restrictions but said the government would « do what is necessary to keep people safe ».
« The first line of defence is the that everybody should follow social distancing … the contact tracing system which is working very well, that is the second line of defence. After that, these local lockdowns, » he said, speaking hours after the North East was put under new restrictions.
« The last line of defence is full national action, and I don’t want to see that but we will do what is necessary to keep people safe in a very difficult pandemic. »
More than 11 million people out of Britain’s 65 million person population are currently under tougher coronavirus restrictions imposed locally in areas including Birmingham, Greater Manchester, the north East, Lanarkshire, and Leicester. Fresh restrictions are also expected to be imposed on parts of Lancashire like Preston, Lancaster, and Burnley.
Pressed on the prospect of a national lockdown, Mr 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. »
He added: « A national lockdown is the last line of defence and we want to use local action. I want to avoid a national lockdown. »
The government’s own Sage scientific advisory group is recommending a two-week national lockdown in October to stem the virus. In England, the R number of the virus is thought to be significantly above 1, meaning infections are spreading.
The Health Secretary refused to say how close the UK was to a national lockdown. Repeatedly asked, Mr Hancock said: « I want to avoid a national lockdown. We do need to bring the number of cases down. The answer to your question is we keep things under review, I can’t give you this answer now as you well know. »
The prime minister is understood to be reticent to introduce a full national lockdown because of the impact on the economy. Advisors have reportedly suggested a so-called “circuit break” – a short but strict lockdown that would nip the virus transmission in the bud.
The news comes amid warnings that the government’s test and trace system is “barely functional” and in “meltdown” after a huge surge in waiting times for tests and a lack of slots.
Scheme boss Baroness Dido Harding admitted on Thursday that demand was four times capacity and that 90 per cent of tests were failing to meet their 24-hour turnaround target.
But she told MPs: “I strongly refute that the system is failing.”