The Government has backed away from plans to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol, despite renewed calls from its chief medical advisor to act to reduce excessive drinking.

Sir Liam Donaldson, the Chief Medical Officer, has outlined plans for the introduction of a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol – meaning beer would cost at least £1 per can and wine at least £4 a bottle. However, senior figures in Whitehall this weekend backtracked from initial support for the proposal.

“We want to focus on the irresponsible minority rather than I think punishing everyone equally,” work and pensions secretary James Purnell told the BBC.

“Clearly we will look at Liam Donaldson’s proposals; he’s a very eminent person in his field. But we are very clear we don’t want to punish the majority for the sins of the minority. I think certainly at a time of economic difficulty that looks like it would be the effect.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health added: “[Low prices are] clearly linked to people drinking more and the subsequent harm to their health. It would be wrong to make sweeping changes without consideration of all the options suggested by our research published in December.

“We need to do more work on this to make sure any action we take is appropriate, fair and effective. Any decisions we make will take into account their wider economic impact during this difficult time and it would not be right to penalise the overwhelming majority of responsible drinkers.”