The Home Secretary has defended the way police have handed out fines for lockdown breaches, warning that officers “will not hesitate” to take action.

Priti Patel said the increasing number of new Covid-19 cases proved there was a need for “strong enforcement” in cases where people were clearly breaking the rules.

Police tactics have come in for scrutiny after Derbyshire Police handed out £200 fines to two women who drove separately to go for a walk at a remote beauty spot situated around five miles from their homes.

A Home Office source told The Telegraph there would be a more “rapid movement to enforcement” around the issuing of £200 fines for those not following the rules.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said the guidance to “move more quickly to issuing a fine” when Covid rules were being totally disregarded had been in place since October.

Amid fresh reports that police would no longer need to give repeated warnings before issuing fines, the NPCC said there was “no specific rule on the number of warnings officers should give” before dishing out a fixed penalty notice.

John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, told BBC Breakfast on Sunday the guidance “needs to be absolutely crystal-clear, not only for the public but also for my colleagues” and a review would be necessary after the Derbyshire incident.

Ms Patel said: “Our police officers are working tirelessly to keep us safe. Not only are they continuing to take criminals off our streets, but they are also playing a crucial role in controlling the spread of the virus.

“The vast majority of the public have supported this huge national effort and followed the rules.

“But the tragic number of new cases and deaths this week shows there is still a need for strong enforcement where people are clearly breaking these rules to ensure we safeguard our country’s recovery from this deadly virus.

“Enforcing these rules saves lives. It is as simple as that.

"Officers will continue to engage with the public across the country and will not hesitate to take action when necessary.”

The NPCC guidance, published on January 6 to reflect the latest national lockdown, states officers should still offer people “encouragement” to comply with the regulations and explain any changes.

The guidance adds enforcement should only follow if the response from an individual or group is not appropriate.

In light of calls for tougher enforcement action, Essex Police's chief constable BJ Harrington has tweeted to say the force will continue to engage with people first. 

He said: "I assure people of Essex that Essex Police will continue to engage, explain and encourage people to observe guidelines that help save lives.

"Officers will use discretion & judgment, but will enforce regulations where there are flagrant or deliberate breaches."