A new round of restrictions based around a three-tier “traffic light” system for local lockdowns is expected to be announced within days.
But the Prime Minister was resisting pressure from leading scientists to follow Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in imposing a two-week “circuit break” national clampdown on licensed premises.
In a statement last night, Mr Hancock said: “Since the beginning of this global pandemic, this government’s top priority has been to do everything we can to support the NHS and save lives.
“I am acutely aware that the measures we have announced are very tough and many people have made major sacrifices this year, but we need to stick at it as every last one of us has a role to play.
“This country is so proud of our NHS and care workers and we must ensure they can continue to provide the services we need. Help us to help you, so the NHS is always there for you.
Boris Johnson ‘will not hesitate’ to introduce tough new measures
“By playing by the rules we can stop the spread of the virus and bring case numbers down – not only protecting ourselves, but crucially our loved ones, the community and the country.
“So we must not let up, we must continue to show our determination and together we will crack this.”
Mr Hancock yesterday hinted at pub closures in a conference call with the Confederation of British Industry yesterday.
The Health Secretary said: “Outside your household and socialising between households, the highest place in incidence of likely transmission, measured by where people have contacts, is unfortunately hospitality.
“Now obviously that finding is not good news in terms of the policy action we have to take for that sector.”
In the Commons, Health Minister Helen Whatley told MPs: “We are now very much seeing a second wave, particularly in much of the North of England and therefore it is absolutely appropriate that there are greater restrictions because we must suppress this virus.
“And one place we know that infection goes on is through hospitality where there is social contact.”
Ministerial signals of a further tightening of restrictions came as Ms Sturgeon announced a crackdown on the hospitality sector in Scotland in a “short, sharp” package of measures to try to curb the growing infection rate north of the border.
Matt Hancock says the hospitality industry is in line for a fresh crackdown
The Scottish First Minister ordered licensed premises to shut for a 16 day period in the five regions across central Scotland with the highest number of cases.
In other areas in Scotland, pubs and restaurants will only be able to open indoor spaces between 6am and 6pm and will be barred from serving alcohol there – though they can sell drinks outside until 10pm.
Mr Johnson was understood to have ruled out a similar short “circuit break” closure of hospitality businesses in England despite pressure from leading scientists.
Calum Semple, professor of child health and outbreak medicine at Liverpool University and a member of the SAGE group of Government advisers, said: “Circuit breakers are certainly something we should be thinking about on a national basis.”
Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrew’s, who sits on the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours which advises SAGE, said: “If you look at the figures at the moment, the level of infections is about 10% of what it was at the peak in March. But at the rate of doubling it would probably be at the same as the peak in March by the end of October.
“So the good news is we have a window of opportunity to do something. If we squander that window of opportunity then we really are in trouble and would be talking about going back to March in terms of full lockdown measures.”
Instead, ministers were finalising graded levels of restrictions to be imposed under a three-tier “traffic light” alert system for local lockdowns.
At Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, Mr Johnson insisted the Government would stick to a “regional approach” combined with national measures.
He announced that statistics for the last week showed 497 cases per 100,000 in Liverpool, 522 cases per 100,000 in Manchester and 422 in Newcastle.
The Prime Minister is resisting pressures to impose a two-week ‘circuit break’
“The key point there is that the local, regional approach combined with the national measures remains correct, I think, because two thirds of those admitted into hospital on Sunday were in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire. That is why, I think, that approach continues to be correct,” the Prime Minister told MPs.
“We are continuing to provide support, with £5 billion of support for the north-west and north-east for the lockdowns—the extra restrictions—that they are experiencing.
“We will continue to support all areas across the country that have to go into local measures.”
Mr Johnson called for a “concerted national effort” for everyone to follow Government guidance.
He added: “We are taking the tough decisions necessary, imposing restrictions—which we do not want to do—locally and nationally to fight the virus to keep young people and kids in education and to keep the bulk of our economy moving”
The Health Secretary hinted at pub closures
Later, Mr Johson’s spokesman said: “We are seeing coronavirus cases rising across the country but they are rising faster in the North East and the North West and that is concerning.
“We will not hesitate to take further action in the areas where cases and hospitalisations are rising significantly in order to protect communities, protect the NHS and to save lives.”
The head of the NHS yesterday warned that increasing coronavirus cases would make for a tough winter.
Sir Simon Stevens told the NHS Providers annual conference that 2020 had been “without doubt the most challenging year in the history of the National Health Service” but that lessons have been learned from the first wave.
He said: “If we’re speaking frankly there are disturbing signs that infection from coronavirus are again rising, they are clearly heading in the wrong direction.
“As we look into winter we are going to have to be very agile in our response, not only to coronavirus but to winter pressures and to sustaining the wider range of services that the NHS offers.
“There was nothing inevitable about the NHS not being overwhelmed as we saw in some other countries across Europe and around the world.
“This time around we have a better sense of what the range of demands are that might be placed on the health service.”
In a final message to frontline NHS staff about the upcoming winter challenges, Sir Simon added: “We’ve got the country with us.
“There was a period of great intensity nationally in April and May where that was very explicitly on view, whether that was the evening claps or the rainbows, but the truth is that I think the country are still absolutely on our side.
A new round of restrictions is expected to be announced within days
“That doesn’t however detract from the fact that it is going to be tough, it is always tough over the winter period.
“We have got certain things working in our favour this time round but equally we’ve got a lot of pressures we’re going to be facing.”
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, agreed the health service faced a daunting challenge in the coming months.
He said: “As cases rise and admissions for Covid-19 increase, there is no question that the challenges trusts face heading into winter are formidable, and the most difficult days may be ahead of us.”
Mr Hospon also said hospital leaders were concerned that local lockdowns may not be sufficient curbing transmission.
He added: “If that is the case we will need to rapidly consider whether tougher local lockdowns are needed to protect the NHS as it enters its busy winter period.
“We understand restrictions are frustrating and come at a very significant cost. But we cannot afford to be complacent as we move towards winter.”
British Medical Association chair of council Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: “As we enter a second wave that could be every bit as dangerous as the first, we all have a duty to protect ourselves, our fellow citizens and our NHS.
“It’s vital that government rules on face mask use and social distancing are taken seriously by people of all ages – and tougher rules on social mixing may be necessary soon.
“The medical profession has a clear message to the public: please minimise contact with others, wear a mask (not a visor alone) if you can’t avoid being fewer than two metres from people not in your bubble, wash or sanitise your hands frequently and avoid touching your face when you’re out.”