Chancellor Rishi Sunak is fiercely resisting any tightening of the lockdown in sectors such as the housing market, construction and manufacturing, despite pressure on ministers to go further to tackle Covid-19.
Mr Sunak’s allies said it would be “ludicrous” to close factories and building sites, arguing that both settings are “safe” when operated in a Covid-19-secure way. He also wants to keep the housing market functioning during the pandemic.
Yet prime minister Boris Johnson is being warned by scientific advisers that the current lockdown does not go far enough and that he should tighten restrictions further within days.
Although the chancellor accepts the need for more restrictions he warned MPs on Monday that current measures are already causing “significant” economic harm.
Ministers regard the closure of nurseries as “the most obvious” additional measure to stem the spread of the virus, although they acknowledge that it would make life much tougher for working parents. Secondary and primary schools have already moved to largely remote learning and are only open for children of key workers and vulnerable pupils.
Downing Street said on Tuesday: “If we believe there is a need to take further action we will.” A spokesman for Mr Johnson declined to rule out new restrictions for the housing market, construction or manufacturing.
Construction and manufacturing were allowed to operate during the first lockdown in the spring of 2020 but some sites closed because employers and staff vigorously observed the “stay at home” message.
Greg Fitzgerald, chief executive of housebuilder Vistry Group, said: “Back in March our subcontractors were saying ‘we didn’t want to come in’. But we have proved that we can do it safely.”
Government guidelines published last week put buyers and sellers on notice that the government could end up closing the market. “It may become necessary to pause all home moves locally or nationally for a short period of time to manage the spread of coronavirus,” the guidelines said.
One real estate figure said there was “lots of smoke around about shutting the property market”.
The Labour leader Keir Starmer poured fuel on that speculation on Monday after calling for home purchases to be put on ice. Meanwhile Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told Tory members that he did not want to shut down the housing market but could not rule it out.
But government figures said on Tuesday that ministers were “absolutely determined” to keep open the property market during the current lockdown. “The housing market is staying open,” said one aide. “All involved need to follow the guidance for moving home safely which has been issued by the government.”
After ministers effectively shut down the housing market between March and May last year, new measures were introduced last summer including the deep cleaning of any property put on the market and the use of face masks and social distancing by those viewing properties.
Property professionals warned that closing the market again would be more complicated thanks to the government's introduction of a stamp duty holiday. The holiday, introduced in July, means buyers can save up to £15,000 in property taxes, but only if a sale is completed by the end of March.
The holiday has triggered a flurry of sales, many of which are yet to formally complete. Shutting down the market could cause those deals to collapse.
Dominic Agace, chief executive of estate agency Winkworth, said: “There are probably more people under offer than there have been since 2007 and so there is a huge potential loss with a looming stamp duty deadline if they shut the market down.”
Estate agents are currently among a select few employee groups classed as essential, and are able to continue working in offices and conducting home viewings.
Get alerts on Coronavirus pandemic when a new story is published