Crowds walking in St James’s Park in London during the third lockdown in England © Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

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The UK government is fearful that the latest lockdown in England is not being strictly observed and may have to be tightened to thwart the rapid spread of a new variant of Covid-19 and avoid the NHS becoming overwhelmed.

But government insiders insisted on Sunday that the immediate priority was to enforce existing measures instead of introducing further restrictions, which would anger Conservative MPs and some ministers.

Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, announced a third lockdown for England last Monday, which includes a legal stay-at-home order and the closure of schools and universities, all non-essential shops, and pubs and restaurants. People have been urged to work from home wherever possible, avoid public transport and exercise locally.

But, as another 54,490 coronavirus infections were reported in the UK on Sunday, ministers are concerned that these strict rules are not being adhered to as closely as during the first lockdown in March, as a result of both public fatigue and the vaccination rollout.

Matt Hancock, health secretary, on Sunday warned the health service was under “very serious pressure” and said: “People need to not just follow the letter of the rules but follow the spirit as well and play their part.”

In an interview with the BBC, he did not rule out further restrictions. “I don’t want to speculate because the most important message is not whether the government will further strengthen the rules. The most important thing is that people stay at home and follow the rules that we have got.”

Some scientists, such as Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London, have said the current lockdown was inadequate to protect the NHS because the colder weather meant more people were falling ill and the new variant of the virus was more infectious. “We should be having a stricter lockdown [than in March], yet we’re got a more lax lockdown,” she said.

The current lockdown is looser in a few areas compared with March. Nurseries and playgrounds have been kept open, along with places of worship. Support and childcare bubbles have also been put in place for adults living alone and those with children under the age of one. The rules on which children can still attend schools are also less strict.

Jeremy Hunt, chair of the House of Commons health select committee, told the Financial Times it was “50:50” whether the NHS could “get through the next two-to-three weeks without having to ration critical care on a large scale”.

Officials said the prime minister would wait for the first two weeks of lockdown data to assess whether the measures were having the desired effect on infection and hospitalisation rates before determining whether tougher restrictions were necessary.

One senior government official said “nothing would be ruled out” if the situation did not improve.

A protester is arrested by Police on Clapham Common during an anti-lockdown demonstration on January 9. Ministers warn that there is only ‘fragile consent’ for existing rules © Getty Images

“It’s a very tough package of measures. It was only introduced four days ago and it’s too early to say whether it’s having an impact. It will take 10 days to two weeks to see. Adherence is key, I wouldn’t expect more measures,” one Downing Street insider said.

The cabinet’s Covid-operations committee met on Sunday, where the focus was on the pressure facing the health service. “There are real concerns about the NHS . . . the situation is far worse than March,” one individual with knowledge of the meeting sad.

The government has launched a newspaper, TV and social media advertising blitz to reinforce its stay-at-home message, with the stark warning: “If you go out, you can spread it, people will die”.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, warned that the NHS was facing “the most dangerous situation anyone can remember” despite the vaccine rollout. He said hospitals would soon have to turn patients away unless infection rates dropped.

“We cannot afford to let our justified optimism for the future come at the expense of difficult action today,” Prof Whitty wrote in a statement released on Sunday. “Every unnecessary interaction you have could be the link in a chain of transmission that has a vulnerable person at the end.”

Keir Starmer has said nurseries “probably should be closed”. The opposition leader said: “I think there is a case for looking at nursery schools, we’re talking to the scientists about that. I think people are surprised that primary schools were closed but nurseries aren’t.”

Any further measures are likely to be met with a significant backlash from Conservative MPs and some members of the government who believe they would go too far and risk losing public buy-in.

“The only other things are curfews or not allowing key workers to go to work. There is no way we should be doing that. There’s fragile consent for the current rules, let alone doing more,” one minister said.

The new nationwide lockdown rules in England

  • The main restriction is a firm stay-at-home message

  • People are only allowed to leave their home to go to work if they cannot reasonably do so from home, to shop for essential food, medicines and other necessities and to exercise with their household or one other person — once a day and locally

  • The most clinically vulnerable will be asked to shield

  • All colleges and primary and secondary schools will be closed until a review at half-term in mid-February. Vulnerable children and children of critical workers will still be able to attend while nursery provision will remain available

  • University students will have to study from home until at least mid-February

  • Hospitality and non-essential retail will be closed. Takeaway services will be available but not for the sale of alcohol

  • Entertainment venues and animal attractions such as zoos will close. Playgrounds can remain open

  • Places of worship can also stay open but one may attend only with one’s household

  • Indoor and outdoor sports facilities, including courts, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and riding arenas, will close. Elite sport including the English Premier League will be able to continue

  • Overseas travel will be allowed for “essential” business only 

Full details are available on the government’s official website.

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