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Coronavirus (COVID-19)

‘Don’t sit on park bench’, says vaccinations minister amid concerns about rise in Covid rule-breaking


eople must not sit on park benches to chat with friends, a minister declared on Monday amid mounting concern that rule-bending by the public was undermining lockdown.

The instruction to stop socialising in the park under the guise of exercise was given by vaccinations minister Nadhim Zahawi. At the same time chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned that the NHS was now at the “most dangerous time” in its history and appealed to the public to obey the rules or risk spreading infections.

The Standard can reveal that Boris Johnson commented to ministers on how packed London’s parks were during a cycle ride yesterday. A source said the Prime Minister was exercising, adding: “But he did note how busy the park was and he commented on it at the meeting last night.  

“He was concerned about if people were following the rules.”

Significantly, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, took part by phone later for a meeting of the Covid O committee, the Cabinet group that sets new restrictions.

The message from government sources was that stricter anti-virus laws would have to be rolled out if the public did not heed today’s appeal and infections continued to rise. Mr Zahawi highlighted people failing to wear masks or obey one-way lanes inside supermarkets.

“These rules are not boundaries to be pushed at, these are rules that help all of us, hopefully bring down the death rate.” Asked on Times Radio if people should avoid sitting on park benches, he said: “Don’t go out and sit or have that opportunity of social interaction, because you’re helping the virus and that’s what we want to avoid.”

Professor Whitty warned: “The next few weeks are going to be the worst weeks of this pandemic in terms of numbers into the NHS.”  

He said 30,000 people were being treated in hard-pressed hospitals, compared with 18,000 last April.

He said people must “double down” on obedience to the rules and stop any “unnecessary contacts”.  

“Any single unnecessary contact with someone is a potential link in a chain of transmission that will lead to a vulnerable person,” he told the BBC’s Today. In key developments:  

The Federation of Small Businesses warned that without further government help more than a quarter of a million businesses across the UK could be lost. FSB national chairman Mike Cherry said: “The development of business support measures has not kept pace with intensifying restrictions.” He said the Government had met the latest national lockdown “with a whimper” and called for help that went beyond retail, leisure and hospitality businesses.  

Employers were urged to provide more support to working parents and families, with childcare expert Sarah Hesz calling on them to subsidise childcare costs for working parents who are under intense pressure home-schooling their children.

The chief executive of the NHS Confederation admitted that the NHS test and trace system does not work effectively. “We’ve struggled as a country to have a test, trace and isolate system that works effectively — it just doesn’t work as well as it does in countries like Australia and various other parts of the world,” he told Sky. “That has to be fixed.”  

Moira Edwards, 88, became the first person to receive a coronavirus jab at Epsom racecourse in Surrey — one of seven mass vaccination sites in England.  Ms Edwards, from Cobham, received her first dose beside her daughter Clare Edwards.  She said: “Having this vaccine makes it a step closer to being with my family again and giving them a big hug.”  

The number of Londoners dying with Covid will hit 10,000 within days amid reports that critical care in hospitals is having to be rationed.

A senior police officer said the public were “fed up!” with lockdown and that compliance with the rules had fallen. Paul Netherton, deputy Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall, said: “What’s happening is people are beginning to flout the rules, they are beginning to think ‘how can I get away with the rules?’” He told BBC Breakfast: “We have to be firm, we have to save lives, we have to make sure people are keeping apart, isolating and staying at home.”  

Three more Transport for London staff died with Covid, according to the RMT union, taking the total to 57.

19 of the 32 London boroughs are now recording more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 population, with Barking and  Dagenham hardest hit at 1,627.

The confusion over schools grew with one in six in London having 15 per cent or more of their pupils in class last week.

Criminal trials will be held in the High Court from today as part of the Government’s pandemic response to the crisis in the justice system.

The date of release from lockdown appeared to recede, as Professor Whitty suggested measures could be needed until “some time in the spring” to stem the rapid spread of the new variant of the virus. The Prime Minister has said easing will be considered in mid-February but Professor Whitty said: “We’ve got to be able to maintain this for several more weeks now.”

Vaccination centres may switch to 24-hour working, said Mr Zahawi. “If we need to go to 24-hour work we will absolutely go 24 hours a day to make sure we vaccinate as quickly as we can,” he said.  

Police chiefs acknowledged some officers “may get it wrong” when enforcing the lockdown laws. Hardyal Dhindsa, police and crime commissioner of Derbyshire Police, spoke out after controversy when officers fined two women £200 walking in the countryside.

The restaurant, pubs and hotels sector also called for the Government to offer more help.

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