Flexing the coronavirus lockdown rules could be fatal, the health secretary has warned as hospital admissions soar.
Matt Hancock did not rule out strengthening current restrictions and told the BBC’s Andrew Marr the NHS was under “very serious pressure”.
It comes after almost 60,000 new cases of coronavirus were reported in the UK on Saturday and the number of deaths after a positive test passed 80,000.
Scientist Prof Peter Horby warned the UK was in “the eye of the storm”.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the rules were tough but “may not be tough enough” and called for the government to hold daily press conferences to avoid “mixed messages”.
Hancock told Andrew Marr “every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal” and said staying at home was the “most important thing we can do collectively as a society”.
The health secretary said he did not want to speculate on whether the government would further strengthen restrictions, after warnings from scientists on Saturday that they may need to be stricter.
“People need to not just follow the letter of the rules but follow the spirit as well and play their part,” he said.
His comments came after Home Secretary Priti Patel defended police over enforcing lockdown rules following the case of two women who were fined for going for a walk five miles from their homes – a decision which is now under review.
The government has launched a campaign telling people to act like they have got the virus in a bid to tackle the rise in infections.
Under the national lockdown, people in England must stay at home and can go out only for limited reasons such as food shopping, exercise, or work if they cannot do so from home. Similar measures are in place across much of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Prof Horby, who is chairman of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said there may be “early signs that something is beginning to bite” in terms of the restrictions – but if they did not then stricter measures would be needed.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I really hope people take this very seriously. It was bad in March, it’s much worse now.
“We’ve seen record numbers across the board, record numbers of cases, record numbers of hospitalisations, record numbers of deaths.”
Prof Horby said tougher measures might include those during the March lockdown, such as people only being able to exercise once a day and stricter rules about meeting people.
“We are in a situation where everything that was risky in the past is now more risky,” he said.
Prof Horby said the early signs were encouraging that the vaccines would be effective against the new Covid variants – first identified in the UK and in South Africa – and he did not want people to “hide under the duvet”.
“We can see the end game now,” he said.
Mass community testing is to be rolled out this week, the government has said, and the health secretary said that around two million people had been vaccinated in England, with some 200,000 jabs being given daily.
Hancock said by autumn every adult in the UK would be offered a vaccine.
He said the government was on course to reach its target of 13 million people vaccinated by mid-February, with the opening of seven mass vaccination centres this week likely to increase the rate of jabs.
Hancock told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge that he hoped coronavirus could be treated like seasonal flu with an annual vaccination programme in the future.
Prof Horby said the vaccines may have to be updated “every few years” as the virus mutates in the future and said it was unlikely the virus would go away completely.
“We’re going to have to live with it,” he said. “But that may change significantly.
“It may well become more of an endemic virus that’s with us all the time and may cause some seasonal pressures and some excess deaths but is not causing the huge disruption that we’re seeing now.”