Tighter coronavirus restrictions are being considered by ministers, The Telegraph understands, amid concerns the latest lockdown is not being followed strictly enough.
Rules banning people from different households who are not in a support bubble from exercising together are under discussion, in a move which would bring the restrictions more closely in line with the first lockdown in March.
The introduction of rules on face coverings in offices is also being mooted in Government circles, as some businesses are feared to have become lax.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a meeting with Cabinet colleagues on Sunday evening at which they discussed whether the current lockdown rules were working to reduce spiralling coronavirus cases at a sufficient rate.
Earlier, Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, chaired an emergency ‘Covid O’ committee which examined ways in which the lockdown could be “improved”, including stricter new measures and initiatives to boost adherence.
Concerns were raised by scenes at the weekend of crowded seafronts and parks.
Two police community support officers patrol the beach and seafront in Brighton on Sunday as Covid-19 restrictions continue around the country
Credit: Brighton Pictures
A Government source said that allowing two people from different households to meet for exercise, such as a walk was “being used as an excuse for people to go for a coffee in the park with their friends”, adding: “It may be we tighten up on things like that.”
It is also understood that Downing Street is preparing to embark on a campaign to force businesses and workplaces to improve their coronavirus-compliant safety measures.
There will be a particular focus on supermarkets, following concerns some shops have relaxed the rules and are putting their customers at risk.
They will be reminded they should implement one-way systems, and that customers should be made to wear face coverings and follow social distancing rules, it is expected.
Expanding the rules on facemasks, which could see them become mandatory in some outdoor settings such as supermarket queues, and inside workplaces for those still attending, is also being discussed in Government circles.
A Downing Street source insisted the focus was on enforcing the current regime, however, and “making sure people aren’t using their own creativeness to interpret the rules how they want to”.
They said some people were using their “imaginations” to apply the rules on exercise in a way that allowed them to socialise, adding: “That rule is there for exercise, for people’s mental health, particularly for older people who are not going to be going for a run to see someone.”
It came as 563 further deaths were recorded on Sunday and 54,940 new cases. New modelling suggests that 1 in 5 people in England have now had the disease, demonstrating the rampant spread of the virus throughout the community.
Ministers view scaling up fines for rule-breakers as another option open to them to boost compliance, The Telegraph understands.
Their willingness to increase penalties was shown last week when the UK raised the fine for inbound passengers who fail to fill in their passenger locator form from £200 to £500.
New guidance was also issued to chief constables instructing them to fine people in breach of the rules £200 if they refuse to go home at the first time of asking.
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, warned on Sunday that while the “vast majority” of people are following the rules, even minor transgressions are dangerous.
“Every flex can be fatal”, he said.
He declined to rule out tougher rules when asked whether nurseries could shut, support bubbles be abolished, face masks become mandatory outdoors, curfews be introduced, and exercise limited to an hour a day.
“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’ve got,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.
Reports emerged at the weekend that restrictions were due to stay in place until at least March 23, the anniversary of the start of the first lockdown, with further opening of the economy scheduled for the May bank holiday. Downing Street sources said it was too early to discuss dates for alleviating restrictions.
The Government is expected to step up its awareness campaign about the current pressure on the NHS, and to reiterate to the public that the situation is worse now than during the first peak last spring.
Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, is set to conduct a media round on Monday. Both ministerial meetings on Sunday focused on NHS capacity and the spiralling hospitalisation rates, as well as lockdown compliance and enforcement.
Scientists and opposition politicians are among those warning that Downing Street may need to toughen the rules.
Professor Peter Horby, chairman of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said the hyperinfectious Kent variant of the virus has made the situation "more risky" and that tighter restrictions may be inevitable.
"Whether the current restrictions are enough, I think it remains to be seen,” he said. “It will be a week or two before it becomes clear. They may be sufficient but we have to be very vigilant and if there’s any sign that they’re not, then we’re going to have to be even stricter I’m afraid."
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer also warned the current rules “may not be tough enough” and said that nurseries should “probably” close.
It came as Mr Hancock threw his support behind Derbyshire police officers who issued £200 coronavirus fines to two women who drove several miles for a walk with coffees, despite the police service itself announcing it would review the fixed penalty notices.
“Absolutely I am going to back the police, because the challenge here is that every flex can be fatal,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
“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’re the limit of what people should be doing.”
Mr Hancock then added that he did not know all the specific circumstances of the Derbyshire case.
Critics insisted while the women’s actions had breached guidance, they had not done anything illegal. Tory MP Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, said the police have a “terrifically difficult job” enforcing the lockdown and need greater clarity over the status of the regulations.
"The Government communications must make clear what is law, which we must obey, and what is guidance, which we should comply with. That would help the public and the police," he told The Telegraph.
A senior police source said if the coronavirus laws were tightened it would increase compliance but at a cost. The source said: "All the evidence seems to suggest that by making something law rather than guidance the public are more likely to take notice and obey.
"But from a policing point of view it does make things very difficult because on a practical level how do you go about enforcing the tighter restrictions among those who chose to ignore the rules?
"If the Government changes the law to say you are only allowed to exercise for one hour a day, it is incredibly difficult for officers to police that.
"However there is probably a net gain overall because there are lots of people who will obey the law but would have probably ignored the guidance."