The environment secretary has said social distancing in supermarkets would be "counterproductive", despite concern they are "undoubtedly adding to the spread of the coronavirus".

George Eustice, who was answering questions in the Commons about his department's response to Covid-19, said the enforcement of social distancing in supermarkets would result in people being "huddled together" outside.

It comes after several national supermarket chains introduced measures to prioritise older and more vulnerable people, in order to make sure they can get supplies they need.

The measures, which included two-item caps on certain products and allocated shopping times for the elderly, were imposed in reaction to panic buying and stockpiling, which resulted in empty shelves.

Another consequence was overcrowded supermarkets, leading many to worry about the possibility of the virus spreading more easily.

But Mr Eustice ruled out imposing social distancing measures inside stores, citing evidence from Italy, the epicentre of Europe's outbreak.

He said measures taken in Italy had proven to be "counterproductive" as they led to hundreds of people "huddled together" at store entrances.

His remarks came after ministers were accused of lacking urgency in their response to the spread of Covid-19.

Speaking in the Commons, Labour Sefton Central MP Bill Esterson warned: "Supermarket queues are undoubtedly adding to the spread of the coronavirus, not least because of a lack of social distancing."

He added: "People need to see a much greater sense of urgency. This needs to be tackled to prevent the spread within supermarkets.

"Will he today, with Cabinet colleagues, implement and enforce social distancing in supermarkets to reduce the spread in that part of society?"

Mr Eustice replied in the Commons: "We will not do that measure."It was something that was done in Italy, with a restriction on the number of people in stores and what they found was they just had hundreds of people huddled together at the entrance to the store and it's counterproductive."

Shadow local government minister Jim McMahon earlier called for supermarket workers to be classed as key workers so their children can still attend schools.

He said: "Our supermarket workers have shown themselves to be the heroes of retail, making sure that people get fed and get the food that they need.

"But there are real concerns about whether they can maintain that service if they're not included in the list of key workers. Of course, many will have children who will need care that the school can't accommodate.

"Can we have an assurance today that our retail workers will be on the list of key workers?"

Mr Eustice responded: "The Prime Minister made reference yesterday to the importance of those working in the food retail sector in particular. Later today, the Government will be announcing those jobs defined as key workers.

"But I can assure him we fully recognise that over 25% of staff generally working in the food supply chain have children of school age, that's recognised and something that will be reflected when that list is published."