The prime minister is considering new national lockdown restrictions, which could be imposed in England as early as next week.
Whitehall sources confirmed Boris Johnson met his most senior cabinet colleagues on Friday to discuss the possible toughening of restrictions in light of worsening coronavirus infection rates and hospital admission data.
Everything except essential shops and education settings could be closed under the new measures, the Times newspaper reports, but no final decisions are believed to have been made. Tougher regional measures are also being considered.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove were all understood to be present at the discussion.
The potential shift in approach comes after a week in which Downing Street had insisted the tiered regional framework remained the right one, despite a “fire breaker” lockdown being imposed in Wales and France and Germany both shifting from regional to national restrictions in light of rising cases.
Earlier, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab had said “we are confident we’ve got the right measures in place – which is not to have a blanket approach”.
Number 10 has yet to issue a response to the reports that the prime minister could hold a news conference on Monday, or that further restrictions are imminent.
A senior government source quoted in The Times said no final decision had been made but added: “The data is really bad.
“We’re seeing COVID-19 rising all over the country and hospitals are struggling to cope. There has been a shift in our position.”
Mr Johnson has so far resisted pressure from scientists and Labour to introduce a “circuit-breaker” to curb Covid-19 cases, but he is facing fresh calls after new data showed the extent of cases across England.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey found cases “continued to rise steeply” in the week ending 23 October, with an estimated 568,100 people in households becoming infected.
Scientific advisers at the top of government believe it is now too late for a two-week national circuit-breaker to have enough of an effect and a longer national lockdown is needed to drive the reproduction number, or R value, of the virus below one.
All parts of England are on course to eventually end up in Tier 3 restrictions, they believe, while deaths could potentially hit 500 per day within weeks.
Sky News deputy political editor Sam Coates said late on Friday that other cabinet ministers were not made aware of the alleged U-turn.
He said many are “angry” after finding out from media reports and not an official briefing.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “We are in a deeply serious situation with coronavirus spreading with ferocity.
“Boris Johnson should have used the school half-term for a time limited circuit break to push infections down, fix Test and Trace, and save lives.
“It’s urgent Boris Johnson outlines the action he will now take to bring the virus under control and deliver on his promise to get the R (reproduction) number below 1 quickly.”
It comes as official documents released by the government showed that a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting on 8 October said the number of infections and hospital admissions is “exceeding the reasonable worst case scenario planning levels at this time”
Professor Jeremy Farrar, an infectious diseases expert and Sage member, said on Friday evening that to bring coronavirus under control “we have to act now”.
He tweeted: “The best time to act was a month ago but these are very tough decisions which we would all like to avoid. The second-best time is now.
“The sooner we get on top of the disease, reduce transmission, R
Meanwhile, on Friday, newly-released documents from the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O) revealed England has breached its “reasonable worst-case” scenario for COVID-19 infections and hospital admissions.
The scientists also warned that the number of daily coronavirus deaths in England is in line with that scenario, but “is almost certain to exceed this within the next two weeks”.
It came after 24,405 new positive cases were confirmed on Friday and a further 274 virus-related deaths reported.
England’s R number has decreased slightly, from a maximum of 1.4 to a maximum of 1.3 – but this still means the epidemic is growing rapidly, new government figures warn.
France and Germany announced national lockdown restrictions earlier this week, while in Northern Ireland pubs and restaurants were closed for four weeks starting on 16 October with the exception of takeaways and deliveries. Schools were closed for two weeks.
Wales is currently under a “firebreak” lockdown with leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses closed, and in Scotland the majority of people will be under Level 3 of a new five-tier system from Monday.