Boris Johnson has warned of the danger of a “serious spike” in coronavirus infections if people “take liberties” with social distancing rules.
The prime minister was speaking as Downing Street made clear that ministers have no plans to shut down beaches to prevent a repeat of scenes which saw thousands cram onto the sands at Bournemouth on Thursday.
A No 10 spokesman said the PM wants people in England to be able to enjoy open spaces, including beaches – and accepts Liverpool fans’ wish to celebrate their Premier League title win – but urged them to observe social distancing rules while doing so.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has warned that localised lockdown measures may have to be tightened if there are signs of a flare-up of coronavirus.
But asked whether Mr Johnson would order the closure of beaches, the No 10 spokesman said that it was a matter for local councils to take action on a case-by-case basis if numbers rise too high.
And speaking during a visit to a restaurant in east London, the prime minister continued to rely on appeals to the community spirit of the public, rather than threats of enforcement, in seeking to head off breaches of social distancing when eating and drinking venues reopen on “super Saturday” 4 July.
“If you look at what’s happening elsewhere in the world where people have been coming out of lockdown, I’m afraid what you’re also seeing is people taking too many liberties with the guidance, mingling too much, not observing social distancing,” said Mr Johnson.
“So in some parts of the world – I won’t name them – you have got spikes, really serious spikes, in the instance of the disease so it is crucial that people understand that on 4 July we get this right, we do this in a balanced way.”
A major incident was declared on Thursday after thousands of sun-seekers flocked to the beach in Bournemouth and other parts of Dorset on the hottest day of the year so far, leaving services “completely overstretched”.
Mr Johnson has been accused of fuelling the rush to the sands after he responded to Hove MP Peter Kyle’s concerns about the prospect of large numbers of visitors to south coast resorts by saying he should “show some guts and determination and champion your communities as venues to return to”.
Asked what the PM’s message would be to anyone thinking of going to the beach over the weekend, the No 10 spokesman said: “We want people to be able to enjoy the open spaces that we have in this country and take exercise where they need it, but we also at the same time need to ensure we are following the social distancing guidelines.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock said on Thursday the government had the power to close public areas such as beaches if there were signs of an upsurge in coronavirus cases locally.
Mr Hancock told TalkRadio he was “reluctant” to go down the route of shutting public spaces as “people have had a pretty tough lockdown”, but added that if there was a spike in the number of coronavirus cases “then we will take action”.
Asked whether the government would act pre-emptively to order people to stay away from beaches where crowds were likely to gather, the Downing Street spokesman replied: “It is a matter for local authorities to manage numbers, alongside emergency services and Public Health England.
“They are best placed to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis, should locations become overcrowded.”
Chief medical officer for England Professor Chris Whitty has urged people to be sure that during the current spell of hot weather they follow social distancing rules, which require them to remain two metres apart when outside their household. New guidance allowing people to observe one metre distancing if they have taken mitigating measures like wearing face coverings does not come into effect until 4 July.
Prof Whitty warned: “Covid-19 has gone down due to the efforts of everyone but is still in general circulation. If we do not follow social distancing guidance then cases will rise again.
“Naturally people will want to enjoy the sun but we need to do so in a way that is safe for all.”
Downing Street said that the expected lifting of restrictions on pubs, restaurants and hotels on “super Saturday” will be conditional on whether the government’s five tests for keeping Covid-19 under control continue to be met and the rate of reproduction – known as R – remains below one. Officials are constantly monitoring these factors before deciding whether to halt the changes, said the spokesman.
Responding to scenes of Liverpool football fans celebrating outside their team’s Anfield ground after Chelsea’s defeat of Manchester City clinched their first Premier League title, the Downing Street spokesman said: “We understand fans will want to celebrate but it is important that people follow the social distancing guidelines and we would ask everybody to do so.”
The guidelines made clear that any celebrations should be held in groups of no more than six and should observe the two metre rule, he said.
On Thursday Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council declared a major incident and condemned the “irresponsible” behaviour of crowds who gridlocked roads, dumped rubbish and parked illegally.
Extra police patrols have been brought in and security is in place to protect refuse crews who the council said faced “widespread abuse and intimidation” as they emptied overflowing bins.
Thirty-three tonnes of waste was cleaned up along the full stretch of coastline on Thursday morning, in addition to eight tonnes collected between the piers on Wednesday, the council said.
Council leader Vikki Slade said: “We are absolutely appalled at the scenes witnessed on our beaches, particularly at Bournemouth and Sandbanks.
“The irresponsible behaviour and actions of so many people is just shocking and our services are stretched to the absolute hilt trying to keep everyone safe.
“We have had no choice now but to declare a major incident and initiate an emergency response.”
Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood said 500,000 people had visited Dorset and added his voice to the calls for people not to go to the area.
“This place was deluged and social distancing went out the window and that’s why a major incident was declared, because the local authority and indeed the police couldn’t cope,” he told BBC Breakfast.
“The beach should have been closed down, or at least shut down to prevent further people from entering it.
“We need to learn from this and recognise that if we’re going to be serious about tackling this pandemic then we need to be swifter in being able to provide support to local authorities who are unable to cope.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies