Matt Hancock criticised lockdown sceptics in his own Conservative party as rebel MPs prepared to vote against new virus control measures for England in protest at the 10pm curfew.
Tory rebels are organising a symbolic vote against one of six restrictions that will be voted on in the House of Commons on Tuesday night. MPs are set to approve the three-tier lockdown system as well as a package of other measures, though they will be denied the chance to vote on the 10pm curfew separately.
At a private meeting on Tuesday, the Guardian understands MPs agreed to signal their anger with a vote against the final motion – which relates to the curfew as well as other restrictions on public spaces and fines.
Many Conservative MPs have called for less stringent measures, fearing the economic impact of mass closures of pubs and restaurants.
The health secretary said he fundamentally disagreed with its premise of granting young people unfettered freedoms while advising older and vulnerable people to shield.
“The Great Barrington declaration is underpinned by two central plains, and both are emphatically false. First, it says that if enough people get Covid, we will reach herd immunity. This is not true,” he said.
“Many infectious diseases never reached herd immunity like measles and malaria and flu … We should have no confidence that we would ever reach herd immunity to Covid, even if everyone caught it.
“The second central claim is that we can segregate the old and the vulnerable on our way to herd immunity … we cannot somehow fence off the elderly and the vulnerable from risk, while everyone else returns to normal,” he said.
“It’s neither conscionable nor practicable, not when so many people live in intergenerational homes where older people need carers … and when young people can suffer the facilitating impact of long Covid. Whenever we’ve seen cases among young people rise sharply, we then see cases among the over-60s rise inevitably thereafter, and we are not the kind of country that abandons our vulnerable, or just locks them up.”
Hancock warned that the three-tier system for local restrictions in England, announced on Monday, could go further than the measures in the most severe tier 3.
“We do not rule out further restrictions in the hospitality, leisure, entertainment or personal care sectors. But retail, schools and universities will remain open,” he said.
Hancock also mounted a strong defence of the test and trace system, hours after a damning assessment of NHS test and trace by the government’s scientific advisers (Sage) was released. The experts warned that “low levels of engagement” with the system, coupled with testing delays and likely poor rates of self-isolation suggested “this system is having a marginal impact on transmission at the moment”.
The health secretary insisted the system was significantly bigger than in most other countries. “When I talk to my international colleagues, they asked the question ‘how did you manage to build this capacity, so fast’, and that is the truth of it,” he said.
“To argue that the enormous system that is working so effectively with so many brilliant people working on it … is at the at the root of this challenge is, unfortunately, to miss the big picture, which is sadly that this virus passes on until we have a vaccine or massive massive testing capacity that nobody yet has.”
Downing Street said shortly before Hancock spoke that MPs would not get a separate vote on the compulsory 10pm closing time for pubs and other hospitality businesses in England, a measure that has received particular criticism from some MPs, including Conservatives.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the decision on the 10pm closure would be part of a wider vote on the new alert system unveiled on Monday – making any rebellion less likely. “The 10pm closing time is a significant part of the medium alert level measures,” the spokesman said.
Hancock said the curfew was having a significant effect on tackling the pandemic. “We’ve seen a reduction in alcohol-related admissions late at night … as a measure of how much people are drinking late at night, and therefore it is evidence that there is less mixing late at night,” he said.
The spokesman denied the government was setting aside scientific advice after it emerged that the Sage advisory committee had recommended last month a series of tougher measures, including a “circuit breaker” temporary lockdown, but that ministers rejected almost all of the advice.
“The government receives advice from a wide range of scientific experts, and also from economists, but it’s for ministers to make decisions,” the spokesman said.
He insisted that the rules put in place in September, after the Sage advice, had been effective: “If you look overall, it is clear that they are having a significant impact. The natural R rate for the coronavirus is 3, and in England, because of the measures we have in place, it is between 1.1 and 1.5. What we would urge MPs to do is continue to support the measures that we have in place.”