U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson slammed the brakes Tuesday on the country’s return to offices and a normal social life, saying the nation was at a “perilous turning point” in its fight against coronavirus.
Saying that the U.K. had to act now or face a huge second wave of the disease, Johnson announced a package of new restrictions, including requiring pubs, restaurants and other entertainment venues in England to close between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. local time, and urging people to work from home where possible.
“This is the moment when we must act,” he told the British Parliament, warning that the measures might have to remain in place for six months.
Later, in a prime-time televised plea to citizens, Johnson said the winter would be hard but that his strategy would keep the economy moving while containing the spread of the virus.
“We must take action now,” he said. “This way we can keep people in work, we can keep our shops and our schools open, and we can keep our country moving forward while we work together to suppress the virus.”
People will have to wear face masks in taxis as well as on public transport. The size of gatherings is being curtailed, with weddings limited to 15 people instead of 30. A plan to bring spectators back to sports stadiums starting in October is also being put on hold.
Businesses breaking COVID-19 restrictions face penalties of up to 10,000 pounds ($17,000 Cdn) or may eve be forced to close, while individuals may be fined 200 pounds ($340 Cdn) for not wearing a mask when required.
Johnson said it was frustrating for the law-abiding majority to see a few “brazenly defying the rules.”
The announcement came a day after the U.K. government’s top scientific and medical advisers said new coronavirus infections were doubling every seven days in the country and could rise to 49,000 a day by mid-October if nothing was done to stem the tide.
On Monday, the government reported 4,300 new confirmed cases, the highest number since May.
The U.K. has gradually been increasing restrictions as cases rise, including barring people from meeting in large groups. But the measures are less stringent than a nationwide lockdown imposed in March, which confined most of the population to their homes and closed most businesses.
Britain eased its lockdown starting in June as cases began to fall, but that trend has now been reversed.
WATCH | England sets new restrictions to curb COVID-19:
Restrictions ‘another crushing blow’
Some lawmakers from the governing Conservative Party are uneasy about tightening restrictions on business and daily life, citing the impact on Britain’s already-reeling economy and the curbing of civil liberties.
Employers and workers in hospitality businesses are also concerned.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, said before the announcement that the restrictions were “another crushing blow” for many businesses.
But most epidemiologists believe restrictions are again necessary and even worry that the government’s plans may not go far enough.
Polls suggest a majority of people in Britain support lockdown measures to contain the virus. But they also show that trust in the government’s handling of the pandemic has declined after troubles with testing, mixed messages on reopening and the U.K.’s high death toll.
Britain has the highest confirmed virus death toll in Europe, at 41,877 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University that experts say undercounts the true toll of the pandemic due to limited testing and other factors.
Jennifer Cole, a biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway University, said people’s behaviour is “the biggest influence” on the spread of the virus.
“Most people know how to prevent spread and, most importantly, how to prevent spread around older or more vulnerable friends and relatives,” she said. “In essence, the government is saying, ‘Stay sober, stay sensible and the venues can stay open.’ It’s a carrot to encourage responsible behaviour.”
Virus alert level heightened
The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on Monday raised the U.K.’s virus alert from three to four, the second-highest level, on the advice of the Joint Biosecurity Centre. They said cases of COVID-19 were rising “rapidly and probably exponentially.”
In a live televised briefing, Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said new confirmed cases increased slowly over the summer but now were doubling every seven days. In other countries, such an increase has soon led to a rise in deaths, Whitty said.
He stressed that infection rates are rising among all age groups, and infections among the young and healthy will inevitably spread to friends, family and ultimately to the most vulnerable in society.
“This is not someone else’s problem,” he said. “This is all of our problem.”
WATCH | Scotland sees tougher COVID-19 restrictions on the way:
The U.K. reported a seven-day average of 21 deaths a day last week, compared with a peak of 942 deaths on April 10.
To persuade people to stay home if they test positive, the government announced it would pay low-income workers 500 pounds ($852) if they are told to self-isolate for 14 days.
The rise in U.K. infection rates comes as lawmakers across the political spectrum have criticized the Conservative government’s testing program.
While ministers tout the record numbers of tests being performed, there are widespread reports of people having to travel hundreds of miles for tests or tests being voided because it’s taking labs too long to process them.
An app meant to bolster virus contact tracing efforts is to be released this week, after months of delay.
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