Health secretary Matt Hancock has declined to rule out the introduction of a ‘Tier 4’ level of restrictions in areas where existing rules fail to suppress the virus.
According to reports, civil servants are drawing up proposals for an alternative plan, including a higher band of measures, if the current three-tier system does not bring down the R rate of transmission by mid-November.
Under the restrictions introduced a fortnight ago, areas in Tier 3, the highest level in England, pubs and bars are being forced to close unless they serve substantial meals and household mixing, except in certain outdoor areas, is banned.
Pressed about speculation regarding the introduction of “Tier four” level restrictions, the health secretary responded: “We’ve always said all along we take nothing off the table. Having said that since the introduction of the tier system a few weeks’ ago, we have seen the rise in the number of cases has slowed a bit.
“The problem is it's still going up, and while it's still going up we've got to act to get it under control.”
Asked again, he told BBC Breakfast: “We rule nothing out, but at the moment the three tier system is what we’re working to and it is effective in slowing the rate of growth of this virus, but it hasn’t brought that growth to a halt, it hasn’t got the curve coming down which is where we need to see it.”
The latest government data, published on Sunday, showed there had been a further 151 deaths related to coronavirus and 19,790 new cases of infections.
Last week, chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance said modelling consensus suggests between 53,000 and 90,000 new infections per day may be occurring across England.
Scientists advising the government have already warned the current restrictions will not go far enough to reducing the size of the size of the epidemic and called for a “circuit-breaker” national lockdown in September – similar to restrictions already imposed in Northern Ireland and Wales.
But Boris Johnson has insisted the extreme action is “not the right course” for England and has sought to defend the government’s regional approach to restrictions under the existing three-tier system.
In a separate interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the cabinet minister was also asked about the criteria for an area to exit Tier 3 restrictions, currently including Greater Manchester, Lancashire, the Liverpool City Region and South Yorkshire.
“The first thing that’s most important is that the case rate has to be coming down, and in particular we look at the number of cases amongst the over-60s because that’s the number that is likely to translate into hospital admissions and sadly into deaths,” Mr Hancock replied.
“Unfortunately it’s [NHS data] showing that hospitalisations are still going up and that they are again doubling every fortnight or so – there’s just under 100,000 beds in the NHS as a whole and you can see how many of those are taken up by people with Covid.”
Speaking at preparations for a vaccine, Mr Hancock also said: “We want to be ready in case everything goes perfectly, but it’s not my central expectation that we’ll be doing that this year.
“But the programme is processing well, as I say, we’re not there yet, the true answer to your question is we don’t know. We don’t know when a vaccine will be available, but my central expectation is in the first half of next year. Nevertheless, of course, we’re doing the preparatory work now for how that will be rolled out.”