The Health Secretary has backed more stringent enforcement of the lockdown by police and warned that “every flexibility” of the rules could prove fatal.
Matt Hancock said the majority of people are “following the rules” to stay at home, but he refused to criticise the police over complaints that some forces have been over-zealous in handing out fines.
Police tactics have come in for scrutiny after Derbyshire Police handed out £200 fines to two women who drove separately to go for a walk at a remote beauty spot situated around five miles from their homes.
The constabulary has since confirmed it will be reviewing all fixed penalty notices issued during the new national lockdown in England after it received clarification about the coronavirus regulations from the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) following the incident.
Mr Hancock, asked about Derbyshire Police’s approach, told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “I’m absolutely going to back the police because the challenge here is that every flex can be fatal.
“You might look at the rules and think ‘Well, it doesn’t matter too much if I just do this or do that’.
“But these rules are not there as boundaries to be pushed, they are the limit to what people should be doing.
“The police are right to take very seriously the rules we have brought in. We haven’t brought them in because we wanted to, we’ve brought them in because we had to.
“Every flexibility can be fatal.”
The comments came after Home Secretary Priti Patel also offered her support to those on the front line of policing the lockdown, stressing that there is “a need for strong enforcement where people are clearly breaking these rules” and vowed that officers will “not hesitate to take action”.
But John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said on BBC Breakfast that a review would be necessary after the Derbyshire incident and called for more clarity on the guidance from ministers.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has warned that the NHS is facing the “most dangerous situation” in living memory, and said the only way to prevent avoidable deaths is for the public to stay at home wherever possible.
Some experts have branded the current lockdown measures not strict enough, in the face of the more transmissible variant which has spread rapidly in many parts of the country – a position the Leader of the Opposition suggested he endorsed.
Sir Keir Starmer told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show that the current lockdown rules “may not be tough enough”.
Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London who participates in Independent Sage, said avoiding further deaths would mean “absolutely having to get right back to where we were in March, unfortunately”.
Professor Peter Horby, chairman of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said the Kent variant has made the situation “more risky” and that if the infection rate does not slow down then “we’re going to have to be even stricter”.
But Cabinet minister Mr Hancock told Marr that he did not want to “speculate” on whether the Government would strengthen the measures.
“The most important thing is that people stay at home and follow the rules that we have got,” he added.
“People need to not just follow the letter of the rules but follow the spirit as well and play their part.”
In what will be seen as a welcome boost to the prospect of lifting the restrictions, Mr Hancock said the Government is on course to reach its target of 13 million people vaccinated by mid-February.
He said that 200,000 people are being inoculated per day, with the opening of seven mass vaccination centres this week likely to increase the rate of jabs.
One third of people over the age of 80 has now received a vaccination, he confirmed, while all adults are expected to be offered an injection by the autumn.
Mr Hancock told Sky News that the country is likely to see a joint vaccination programme in place for the “foreseeable” future.
“I think it’s highly likely that there will be a dual-vaccination programme for the foreseeable – this is the medium term – of flu and Covid,” he added.
Professor Adam Finn said the chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) had instructed members including himself to come up with a plan by the middle of February for the priority order of who should be vaccinated next.
But the immediate pressure on the health service remains, with a report that London hospitals are treating fewer than half the cancer patients they normally would.
The Sunday Telegraph also reported that there were around 10,000 fewer non-Covid patients being treated at NHS hospitals in England last week than the middle of last month.
Vin Diwakar, medical director for the NHS in London, said staff are “working round the clock” to expand capacity and that “some surgery is being postponed based on clinical need to ensure all Londoners continue to receive very urgent cancer surgery”.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents NHS trusts in England, said the delaying of some procedures was a “temporary emergency response to a temporary emergency problem”.
The number of patients with Covid-19 in hospital has reached a record high in England, while the official coronavirus death toll for the UK passed 80,000 at the weekend and lab-confirmed cases hit more than three million.
As of Sunday, a further 563 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the UK total to 81,431.
Separate figures published by the UK’s statistics agencies for deaths where Covid-19 has been mentioned on the death certificate, together with additional data on deaths that have occurred in recent days, show there have now been 97,000 deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK.
The demand for hospital services has put ambulance staff under “unprecedented pressure” with handover delays at a scale that “haven’t been seen before”, the chief executive of the College of Paramedics said.
As well as the vaccine programme scaling up, rapid-result testing will also be expanded in a bid to find people who are asymptomatic, with one in three people who contract Covid-19 doing so without showing symptoms.
The Department of Health and Social Care said all councils in England will be supported to roll out the mass testing service and encouraged to offer lateral flow tests to those unable to work from home during lockdown – a move likely to include police officers, supermarket workers and taxi drivers.