Matt Hancock has claimed it is "safer" for people to be outside than inside when challenged over scenes of crowded streets caused by the 10pm curfew rolled out on Britain's pubs and restaurants.
The Health Secretary's comments came after Conservative former cabinet minister Greg Clark asked him on Thursday to summarise the scientific advice behind the curfew.
Mr Clark told the Commons: “It does seem strange to think that concentrating trade in a smaller number of hours and making everyone leave a pub or a restaurant at the same time rather than spacing them out over the course of the evening should suppress rather than spread the virus.”
Mr Hancock replied: “The scientific advice is that the people who are closer together are more likely to spread the virus, and later at night social distancing becomes harder.
“We’ve all seen the pictures of people leaving pubs at 10 o’clock but otherwise they would have been inside the establishments and we all know that outside is safer, or they’d be leaving later.
“Of course, we keep this under review and of course we’re constantly looking at how we can improve these policies, but I think we’ve got to look at both sides of the evidence to try to get this right.”
The Health Secretary also came under fire from several other members of his own party over the 10pm curfew in Parliament on Thursday, with MP for Shipley Philip Davies calling on Mr Hancock to “start acting like a Conservative” and stop presiding over a “nanny state”.
He said: “Is the Secretary of State aware of the damage the arbitrary 10pm curfew is doing to pubs, restaurants, bowling alleys and casinos?
“Is he aware of the jobs that are being lost, all just to see people congregating on the streets instead and shop staff getting more abuse?
“When will the Secretary of State start acting like a Conservative with a belief in individual responsibility and abandon this arbitrary, nanny state, socialist approach which is serving no purpose at all apart from the further collapse of the economy and to erode our freedoms?”
But Mr Hancock replied that he “profoundly” disagrees with Mr Davies as he believes in “individual responsibility and the promotion of freedom, subject to not harming others”.
The Health Secretary added: “So it is perfectly reasonable to make the argument that we should just let the virus rip, I just think that the hundreds of thousands of deaths that would follow is not a price that anyone should pay.”
Tory former minister Andrew Jones meanwhile urged Mr Hancock to “commit to keeping the restrictions under the closest possible review”.
Mr Jones said: “Restrictions curbing when we can go to the pub is against the DNA of our country, but we are in exceptional times and I recognise that includes taking measures which people don’t like and ministers don’t like having to introduce.”
Political opponents weighed in on the issue too, with Liberal Democrat MP for St Albans Daisy Cooper saying “lives and livelihoods” were being put at risk by the 10pm curfew, as she urged ministers to scrap the new measure which has been “a hammer-blow” to the hospitality sector.
Mr Hancock replied: “The virus spreads most outside of households when other households meet together, including in hospitality venues.”
Labour shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth also raised concerns about people “piling out” of pubs at the same time and causing crowds.
Mr Ashworth asked: “What action will he take so we don’t see a repeat this weekend of people piling out into city centres, packing out public transport, sometimes all piling in to a supermarket to buy more drink?”
Mr Hancock did not respond directly to Mr Ashworth’s concerns.
Thursday's exchanges came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday urged people to stick to coronavirus rules at a “critical moment”, with his senior scientists warning hospital admissions are rising and Covid-19 is not under control.
The Prime Minister said no matter how “fed up” people are of the restrictions being imposed, they were the only way to curb the spread of the virus.
The latest figures, published on Wednesday, showed a further 7,108 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK, slightly down on the 7,143 reported on Tuesday.
The Government also said a further 71 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday. This brings the UK total to 42,143.
Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies show there have now been nearly 57,900 deaths registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.