Matt Hancock did not rule out England’s pubs being closed this weekend as ministers prepare extra measures to curb the spread of coronavirus.
The Health Secretary said on Monday that the Government had not yet taken the “final decisions” on what response was necessary, but said the changes would be announced in the “very, very near future”.
He was unable to say if pubs will be ordered to shut by the weekend, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson expected to address the nation on Tuesday amid mounting concern about a surge in the number of Covid-19 cases.
The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA), which represents about 20,000 of the UK’s pubs, warned closing bars even temporarily would come at an “astronomical cost” to the sector.
On ITV’s This Morning, Mr Hancock was asked whether landlords would be told to shut this weekend.
“We will be absolutely clear about the changes we need to make in the very, very near future,” he replied.
The Heath Secretary said his answer on pubs was “not a no, and it’s not a yes”, adding: “We have been working on this all weekend, we haven’t taken the final decisions about what we need to do in response to the surge that we have seen in the last few weeks.”
He said he spoke to Mr Johnson on Monday morning, adding: “He is as worried as we all are about the rise in the number of cases and we have to make a final decision about what’s the best response to that.”
In response to the comments, Emma McClarkin, chief executive of BBPA, said although pubs and brewers have worked “tirelessly” to reopen safely, the majority are still struggling to break even.
“Consumer confidence is very fragile and any extra restrictions inevitably have a further cooling effect on that,” she said.
“It is vital that the Government recognises the unprecedented challenges that pubs and brewers are facing at this time.
“Shutting down completely, even for a short period, would be a monumental task, severely impact hundreds of thousands of livelihoods and would come at an astronomical cost to the trade.”
Ms McClarkin called on the Government to “safeguard” brewing and pub jobs by putting a sector-specific furlough scheme in place beyond October and extending the VAT cut and business rates holiday.
When asked about Christmas, Mr Hancock said he wanted it to be “as normal as possible” and suggested that a vaccine may be widely available in early 2021.
“It depends how much we can control it now,” he told ITV’s This Morning.
“If this runs out of control now, then we’ll have to take heavier measures in the future.
“The more we can control it now by everybody doing that bit, including us – absolutely – but everybody together, then the easier it is going to be to have as normal a Christmas as possible.”
On the possibility of a vaccine, Mr Hancock said: “For the mass rollout we’re talking about the first bit of next year, if all goes well.
“Hopefully in the first few months – there’s still a chance of it coming on stream before Christmas, but we’ve then got to roll it out and the first people who will get it are the people who are most vulnerable – people in care homes, older people.
“There’s a series of different vaccines, but we are talking about – essentially, for it to have an impact on how we live our lives – we’re talking about the start of next year.”