The prime minister was accused of breaking the spirit of new restrictions when he cycled from Downing Street to the Olympic Park, a 14-mile round trip.
But speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Monday, Johnson’s minister suggested the PM’s outing on Sunday – revealed by the London Evening Standard – did not breach the “stay local” guidance on exercising during lockdown.
Pressed on the trip, he said people should “get out there” and go for a cycle or “long walk”, which could see them end up seven miles away.
That is despite the fact two women were fined in Derbyshire over the weekend for exercising at a reservoir five miles from their home, which the local force deemed was too far away. They have since had the fines rescinded.
“It is OK to go for a walk with one other person around a park but you should stay two metres apart from that other person,” he said.
“And likewise it is OK, if you went for a long walk and ended up seven miles away that is OK but you should stay local.
“You should not go from one side of the country to the other, potentially taking the virus with you, cause remember one in three people have the virus don’t know they have it because they don’t have symptoms.”
Hancock added: “It is OK to go for a long walk or a cycle ride or exercise but stay local and please get out there and take exercise because it’s good for you.”
The health secretary said he did not want to tighten the rules on people exercising with one other person, adding:
Hancock added: “Don’t say you are exercising when you are really socialising.”
A source told the Standard that the PM was exercising, saying: “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 and was concerned after his cycle ride around the park.”
During the same briefing on Monday, Hancock underlined hospitalisations had risen by 22% over the course of the week amid fears the public may be ignoring the rules.
He urged the public to follow coronavirus rules and cut all social contact not “absolutely” necessary.
The new variant is “highly contagious and it is putting the NHS under very significant pressure”, he said, adding “we’re at the worst point in this pandemic”.
“The NHS, more than ever before, needs everybody to be doing something right now – and that something is to follow the rules,” the health secretary said.
“I know there has been speculation about more restrictions, and we don’t rule out taking further action if it is needed, but it is your actions now that can make a difference.
“Stay at home, and please reduce all social contact that is not absolutely strictly necessary. That’s what is needed: act like you have the virus.”