Matt Hancock has suggested the 10pm hospitality curfew was a “matter of policy choice” in order to keep schools and workplaces open.
The Health Secretary told MPs there is “direct and approximate evidence” for the positive impact of the limits on pubs and restaurants, citing a fall in alcohol-related A&E admissions late at night.
But Mr Hancock insisted the Government’s desire to protect education and work “as much as is possible” meant they had to take measures against socialising to try to slow the spread of Covid-19 transmission.
MPs were also warned they should have “no confidence” of ever reaching herd immunity against the virus even if everyone caught it.
Appearing in the Commons to move regulations to implement England’s new three tiers of restrictions, Mr Hancock was challenged by Tory MP Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) on whether the scientific evidence on curfews shows the positives outweigh the negatives.
Mr Hancock replied: “We already now have evidence from accident and emergency departments that we’ve seen a reduction in alcohol-related admissions late at night after the 10pm curfew.
“This is both important in its own right but it’s also a proxy as a measure of how much people are drinking late at night, and therefore is evidence there is less mixing and less drinking late at night.”
The Health Secretary said people are largely mixing outside after 10pm, adding: “They would otherwise be mixing inside the premises – it’s just easier to photograph outside.”
He added the Government also needs to reduce the amount of social contact to control the virus, explaining: “We’re trying to protect, as much as is possible, education and protect, as much as is possible, work, essentially that leaves socialising as the other part of life, of activity where people transmit the virus.
“And so it is therefore understandable that governments around the world and around this United Kingdom, governments of all different political persuasions, have all come to broadly the same conclusion that it is necessary to restrict socialising because that way we reduce the transmission with the least damage to education and the economy.
“So while there is both direct and approximate evidence for the positive impact of this measure, there is also the strategic point which is, if we want to control the virus and we weren’t to do this, we’d have to do something else and we want, as a matter of policy choice, to protect education and protect work.”
On herd immunity, Mr Hancock earlier told MPs: “Many infectious diseases never reach herd immunity, like measles and malaria and Aids and flu, and with increasing evidence of reinfection, we should have no confidence that we would ever reach herd immunity to Covid even if everyone caught it.”
He also dismissed suggestions that elderly and vulnerable people should be segregated while other parts of society are opened up.
The Health Secretary said: “We are not the kind of country that abandons our vulnerable or just locks them up.”
Tory former minister Mark Harper urged Mr Hancock to ensure more of the contact tracing is done by local directors of public health.
He noted: “My argument to the Secretary of State is can he look not just in high-risk areas, but in all areas, to get more of the contact tracing done by our fantastic directors of public health and their teams?”
For Labour, shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said a “clear plan” is now needed, as opposed to more soundbites from the Government.
He told the Commons: “What precise moment did the Prime Minister stop following the science? And indeed, I’m sorry to say, Sage advised the Government to take action in March, but the Prime Minister was too slow.
“Now, after the Prime Minister spoke, we see yet again he is being advised to take action and has so far refused. But it’s the same virus, the same delays, the same country and the same government making the same mistakes again.
“Our constituents will ask is history repeating itself? Because if these tiers don’t work, then what? Tier 4? Tier 5? What’s the plan? Well, there isn’t one. We had whack-a-mole, a fairground game but it was never a strategy.
“It was just a soundbite from the circus ring showman. We’ve had exaggerated claims, complaints when challenged, a lack of transparency with the public but now further action and a clear plan is needed.”
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tories, said the Government needs to “work with the public” to encourage them to take “sensible precautions for themselves”.
He said young children should be exempted from the rule of six, the 10pm curfew should be scrapped or “softened”, and airport testing is needed to mitigate the “hugely damaging” quarantine arrangements.
Sir Graham also pressed for an exit strategy from restrictions for his Altrincham and Sale West constituents, adding: “This half-alive state we have to inhabit cannot be allowed to become permanent.”