Powers to ban movement in and out of coronavirus hotspots could be used to curb the spread of Covid-19, Downing Street said.
Officials confirmed the measures – which could include shutting down transport networks – would be considered if needed to prevent a spike in cases.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan hit out at “totally unacceptable” reports that the capital could be effectively cut off from the rest of England if there was a surge in cases there, but Downing Street insisted no specific plans for the UK’s biggest city had been drawn up.
However, Number 10 acknowledged that measures to effectively ban travel around hotspots in England were part of the armoury to combat the disease.
The “Contain” framework drawn up by officials in July sets out “the possibility of putting in place restrictions on travel if there is an area that is particularly badly affected”, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“One of the steps within that potentially includes closing down local transport networks,” the spokesman said.
“It’s there, it’s contained in the document, it’s not a new thing – we have informed the public and politicians of that being a potential action that we could take.
“But, to be clear, it’s not something that is specific to London or anywhere else.”
Measures could be brought in under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 impose restrictions on gatherings – limiting how many people can meet and whether they can travel in and out of an area to do so – or shut down local or national transport systems.
Regulations would be produced – and approved by Parliament – on a case-by-case basis.
Mr Khan wrote to the Prime Minister following a Sunday Times report that Boris Johnson held a “war game” session with Chancellor Rishi Sunak to run through possible options in the event of a second wave in London, with one option effectively seeing the M25 acting as a barrier around the capital.
The letter from the mayor and the chair of London Councils, Peter John, said: “Our surprise is that such far-reaching contingency plans have been discussed and tested without the involvement or awareness of London’s government.
“This is clearly totally unacceptable and an affront to London and Londoners.”
The row came as a senior scientist criticised the way decisions about the response to coronavirus had been “shrouded with secrecy”.
Sir Paul Nurse, the director of the Francis Crick Institute, said the Government should “treat the public as adults” in its communications over Covid-19.
He told the BBC’s Today programme: “I think we need greater openness in the decision-making. “It sometimes seems somewhat shrouded in secrecy.
“And not only that, but better communication of what’s happening. “Treat the public as adults.”
But the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We have been sharing data extensively with local authorities and local public health teams in order to help inform the decisions that they are taking on dealing with outbreaks.
“More broadly there has been regular publication of documents relating to Sage’s discussions and minutes of meetings.”
In other developments:
– A major incident was declared in Greater Manchester over rising Covid-19 infections.
– The World Health Organisation there may never be a “silver bullet” in the fight against the pandemic.
– Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s meal-deal scheme aimed at encouraging people to go out more began.
– Trade unions criticised the Government’s decision to press on with measures to get people back into the office on the first weekday since the guidance changed.
– Officials blamed rising demand and “unexpected delays” for problems in providing coronavirus testing for care home staff and residents.
– Two new tests which can detect coronavirus and flu – and promise results in 90 minutes – are to be rolled out in hospitals, care homes and laboratories.
Concerns over a possible increase in cases has led to some experts warning that aspects of the national lockdown will have to be reimposed in order to allow schools to reopen in September.
Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said ministers might have to consider closing pubs in England in order for lessons to start again next month.
Downing Street insisted that schools would reopen in England in September “for all pupils in all year groups” but local lockdowns could force some closures.
Asked if the Prime Minister agreed with Prof Medley’s assessment, the spokesman said: “Our approach is a localised one where you would assess the situation on the ground and take whatever steps were required to slow the spread of the virus.
“More broadly we are committed to supporting the hospitality industry which has had a very tough time.”
Part of that support is the Chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, an offer of half-price meals from Monday to Wednesday during August in order to entice people back into restaurants and pubs which have seen their takings badly hit by the pandemic.
The incentive will reduce bills by 50% for all eat-in meals at 72,000 participating establishments, including chains such as McDonald’s, Nando’s and Prezzo.
The discount per person will be capped at £10 and does not apply to alcohol.