Social “bubbles” that allow for two households in England to mix should soon help with the “anguish” of not being able to see family members, Matt Hancock has said while defending the government’s decision to let people meet only one other person outside their home.

The health and social care secretary was questioned on Tuesday about the confusing and inconsistent advice given by the government over the last 36 hours on the easing of the lockdown, but insisted the overall guidance was clear.

In a round of broadcast interviews, he said the government had to draw a line somewhere when limiting social contact, and one-to-one meetings outdoors was a reasonable way to “protect everybody against that burgeoning into large groups of people”.

He said it was sensible to limit such meetings to public places rather than private gardens, because the latter could require people to walk through one another’s houses, which was less safe.

Hancock also tried to explain why childminders were being allowed to go back to work but people could not rely on their relatives for childcare. “For some people’s livelihoods they need a childminder in order to earn an income and so that is important we allow that to happen,” he said.

“But at the same time we don’t want to encourage the large scale, we don’t want to encourage people, especially when grandparents are older, and we know this virus kills more older people than younger people, so we don’t want to encourage kids to stay with their grandparents, but we do want to allow people, where possible, to get back to work.”

Boris Johnson has been criticised for failing to acknowledge the pain felt by people being kept apart from their wider families, despite the guidance being very slightly changed to allow one-to-one contact between members of different households outdoors.

Hancock said he understood people were upset about not being able to see relatives and signalled that further loosening of the rules in the coming weeks would help to address that.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The principle behind this bubble idea – which we are looking at with the scientists to see how big an impact it would have on R [the virus transmission rate] – is that if you’re in one household and essentially you don’t see anybody from outside your household, and then there’s another household – say it’s another part of your family – and they don’t see anyone from outside their household, then the risk is lower of those two households meeting each other, so long as they don’t form a chain and don’t see people in other households.

“It will help if we can do it in a way that doesn’t impact on R. I think it will help with this anguish of a lot of people wanting to see family members in another household, whether that’s a grandparent – although there are the risks for older grandparents – or for people who are in a relationship but are in different households, and I understand that yearning as well.”

Hancock also defended the policy of allowing people to drive to beauty spots, despite concerns about the potential for crowds to gather. He said there should not be a problem if “people socially distance when they get there, and hence we’ve kept the socially distancing rules very clearly in place”, adding: “This isn’t for people to move house or to go on holiday or to be able to stay.”

The guidance has caused widespread confusion among the public, but Hancock suggested people should try to interpret it with “common sense”.

There is concern about the prospect of being encouraged to go back to work from Wednesday when guidance on safety standards is only being published on Tuesday.

The health secretary refused to directly answer whether people had a legal right not to go to work if they did not feel safe due to coronavirus, when twice asked on BBC Breakfast.

He said it needed to be a “collaborative effort” between employees and employers, stressing that “absolutely, workplaces need to follow the guidelines on making a workplace safe for Covid [and], critically, everybody who can work from home should continue to work from home”.

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