Covid restrictions in England will get tougher if rules are not followed, Matt Hancock has warned, as the government introduces £10,000 fines for people who fail to self-isolate.
The health secretary told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show the country was facing a “tipping point and we have a choice”.
“If everybody follows the rules then we can avoid further national lockdown.”
The prime minister is understood to be considering a ban on households mixing, and reducing opening hours for pubs.
Asked if England could face another national lockdown, Mr Hancock said: “I don’t rule it out, I don’t want to see it.”
In the BBC interview, he also:
- Said he would call the police on people who refused to self-isolate
- Denied the government was overreacting given deaths and hospital admissions remain relatively low
- Said there was still hope a vaccine would get “over the line” this year
The move under consideration by PM Boris Johnson could take the form of a two-week mini lockdown in England – being referred to as a “circuit breaker” – in an aim to stem a recent surge in cases.
On Saturday, a further 4,422 new Covid-19 cases and 27 deaths were reported in the UK.
People in England who refuse an order to self-isolate could be fined up to £10,000 from 28 September.
The new legal duty requires people to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus, or are traced as a close contact.
New measures also include a one-off £500 support payment for those on lower incomes, and a penalty for employers who punish those told to self-isolate.
Fines will initially start at £1,000 rising to £10,000 for repeat offenders, and for “the most egregious breaches”.
Until now, advice to self-isolate has been guidance only.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We need to do all we can to control the spread of this virus, to prevent the most vulnerable people from becoming infected, and to protect the NHS and save lives.”
More than 19,000 fines have been issued in England and Wales for alleged breaches of coronavirus laws, the attorney general said earlier this week, but more than half have not been paid so far.
Earlier this week, Boris Johnson told the Sun he had “never much been in favour of sneak culture, myself” and people should speak to Covid rule-breakers before reporting them to the police.
In contrast, Mr Hancock said he would call the police on his neighbour if they were breaking rules, saying it was “absolutely necessary” to break the chains of transmission.
Asked whether the government’s response was an overreaction given coronavirus death rates were still low, Mr Hancock said the number of hospital admissions was rising and an increase in deaths would follow.
He said he was “very worried” about the latest data which suggested the UK could be on the same path as Spain and France – where deaths and hospitalisations are increasing – without effective action.
“I am very worried about this second wave.
“We have seen in other countries when the case rate shoots up, the next thing that happens is the numbers going into hospital shoot up,” he said.
“Sadly, we have seen that rise, it is doubling every eight days or so – people going into hospital – then, with a lag, you see the number of people dying sadly rise.”
Currently, large swathes of the UK, where cases have spiked, are living under tighter local restrictions. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has warned London could be next.
Mr Hancock, who has spoken to the mayor this weekend, told Times Radio he would not rule out the possibility that Londoners could be told this week to avoid the commute and get back to working from home.
Mr Hancock said he remained hopeful that a vaccine would be ready before the end of the year.
“We have got the cavalry coming over the next few months – the vaccine, the mass testing and the improvements in treatments – but we have got to all follow the rules between now and then to keep people safe,” he added.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the BBC he supported the new fines, saying it was important to take action against the few people who were not complying.
He also said he would back a future lockdown in order to reinforce the government’s message.
“In the end this is not about party politics, this is about getting the nation through this virus,” he added.
At-a-glance: What are the new rules?
- People in England who are told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace face fines of £1,000 – up to £10,000 for the worst offenders – if they fail to do so
- This includes those who test positive and those identified as close contacts of confirmed cases
- It also includes employers who force staff to ignore an order to self-isolate
- NHS Test and Trace will make regular contact with those isolating to check compliance
- The measures apply from 28 September and will be enforced by police and local authorities
- Those in receipt of benefits or on low income and who cannot work from home may receive a £500 one-off payment if self-isolating
The UK government hopes the new fines will be replicated in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – which all have powers to set their own coronavirus rules.
Those attracting the highest penalties are described as including those who stop others from self-isolating, such as employers who insist staff come to work in violation of an order.
Officials said NHS Test and Trace would be in regular contact with individuals told to self-isolate and would report any suspicions that people were not complying to the police and local authorities.
Police will also check compliance in Covid-19 hotspots and among groups considered to be “high-risk” as well as following up reports from the public of people who have tested positive but are not self-isolating.
Prosecutions could follow in “high-profile and egregious” cases of non-compliance.
As with other coronavirus rules, there will be specific exemptions for those who need to escape from illness or harm during their isolation, and for those who require care.
Changes to support for those in receipt of benefits or on a low income will initially affect up to four million people who cannot work from home in England, the government said.
The one-off payment of £500 is above both statutory sick pay of £95.85 per week and a previously-announced additional award of £182 for those told to self-isolate in highest risk areas of intervention.