Coronavirus: UK enters 'critical' weekend as Boris Johnson considers new national lockdown

Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener

A new national lockdown is being considered as a "last line of defence" as Britain enters a "critical weekend" in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic, senior UK ministers have said.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he hopes "local action" will be enough to bring infections rates down but added how full lockdown remains an option "on the table".

"The very last line of defence is national action", he said, "but of course we don't rule it out because this virus kills".

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he was "deeply concerned" about the rise in infections and the issues with testing for coronavirus and urged the Prime Minister to convene a Cobra meeting.

He said: " I think there's a real concern now that the government hasn't got sufficient control over what's going on."

He added: "We cannot afford to be slow. I want to be clear that if the Prime Minister does take action, the Labour Party will support it and do what we can."

He urged the government to take "swift" and "decisive" action.

"It is for the government to decide what action they should take but they need swift action and it needs to be taken very soon and it needs to be decisive," Starmer said.

He added: "Take that action, take it now and we’ll support you."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned "tough decisions" will be made in the coming days as she seeks to avoid a full lockdown.

Scientists advising the UK government have reportedly recommended a two week national lockdown to tackle the rise of coronavirus ahead of the winter.

Ms Sturgeon said she had asked Boris Johnson to convene a meeting of the government’s emergency committee Cobra over the weekend so representatives from across the UK can assess what course of action is best to avoid blanket restrictions.

"We are now at a really critical point, Covid-19 is on the rise, not just here in Scotland, it's on the rise in the UK and across Europe," she said.

"The virus could get out of our grip again," said Ms Sturgeon, but she added how "that hasn't happened yet".

“I’m giving people advance notice that we are likely to see very difficult but necessary decisions over the coming days," she said at her daily media briefing.

She added: "Let me be very clear - this is about trying to avoid another full lockdown. It is not a full lockdown I’m talking about right now."

Her comments follow reports that a "circuit-break" national lockdown is being considered to bring infection rates down as they rise in several regions across the UK.

It is estimated that 11 million Brits are currently living under increased coronavirus restrictions in large swathes of the country.

That number will increase by over a million on Tuesday when new restrictions are enforced in the North West, Midlands and West Yorkshire.

Residents must not socialise with other people outside of their own households or support bubble in private homes and gardens, hospitality for food and drink will be restricted to table service only and late-night operating hours will be restricted, with leisure and entertainment venues including restaurants, pubs, and cinemas, required to close between 10pm and 5am.

The government said it was forced to implement new restrictions "urgently" in order to "curb rising infection rates".

"The country once again needs to come together and recognise there is a serious challenge. That the virus is accelerating," Mr Hancock told Sky News.

"Unfortunately, it isn't just cases increasing, it's also the number of people ending up in hospital increasing."

Health secretary Matt Hancock does not want to see a second national lockdown. Credit: PA

He continued: "We will do what is necessary to keep people safe. "And the first line of defence is that everybody should follow the social distancing."

"The contact tracing system, which is working very well, that is the second line of defence.

"After that, these local lockdowns.

"And the last line of defence is for national action.

"And, I don't want to see that. But we will do whatever is necessary to keep people safe in a very difficult pandemic."

Asked about the possibility of a two-week imposition of national restrictions to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, Mr Hancock told Sky News: “A national lockdown is the last line of defence and we want to use local action.”

A Downing Street spokesperson, responding to a question on the "circuit-break" plan, appeared to suggest it was being considered.

He said: "I would point to the words of the Health Secretary this morning where he said that we are prepared to take action if necessary."

Meanwhile, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer echoed Ms Sturgeon in urging the PM to convene a Cobra meeting.

“There is mounting concern about whether we have got the virus sufficiently under control. This is the time for swift, decisive national action. We cannot afford to be too slow," he said.

“That’s why I’m asking the Prime Minister to convene a Cobra meeting and to update the country on the measures the Government is taking to keep the virus under control, including to fix testing."

He added: “I want to make clear too that Labour will continue to act in the national interest. We will support whatever measures the Government take to protect the NHS and save lives.”

The First Minister of Wales called on Prime Minister Johnson to offer "proper engagement with the devolved governments of the United Kingdom".

Mark Drakeford told a press conference in Cardiff there had only been "one brief phone call" with Mr Johnson since May 28, which he described as "simply unacceptable".

"There is a vacancy at the heart of the United Kingdom and it needs urgently to be filled," Mr Drakeford said.