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COVID-19: New restrictions announced as UK records highest spike in daily cases in four months

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks to Downing Street in London on September 22, 2020 after attending the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Office.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks to Downing Street in London on September 22, 2020 after attending the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Office.   -   Copyright  JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP
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New coronavirus restrictions may last for six months if the pandemic situation does not improve, Boris Johnson told the UK parliament on Tuesday.

The prime minister confirmed that pubs, bars and other hospitality venues in England will have to close at 10 pm from Thursday, as the British government imposes new restrictions to try to curb a surge in cases.

In a TV address later in the evening, Johnson warned that further constraints would be considered if people did not adhere to the rules.

The move comes as the UK recorded 4,926 new lab-tested cases of coronavirus, the highest daily spike in infections since May 7. It brings the total number of infections to date in the country to 403,551, according to the latest UK government data.

A further 37 people died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19, according to Public Health England. This brings the UK's total number of deaths since the pandemic began to 41,825 -- the highest in Europe.

The new measures were announced a day after the chief medical and scientific advisors warned about the spread of the virus in all parts of the UK.

The UK's four nations make their own decisions on COVID-19 and each vary. Scotland has announced measures that in some respects go further than Johnson's plan for England.

Stricter rules, tougher fines

In his statement to the House of Commons, Boris Johnson confirmed that from Thursday, pubs, bars and other hospitality venues in England will be restricted to table service only and will have to close at 10 pm.

Rules on mask-wearing and the workplace are to be tightened, while enforcement will be stepped up and tougher fines imposed.

The prime minister said the country had "reached a perilous turning point", after the number of daily virus infections had almost quadrupled in a month. Testing had increased but so had the proportion of people testing positive.

Hospital admissions had risen and there would be "hundreds of daily deaths in November" unless action was taken now, Johnson added, while remaining opposed to a renewed national lockdown.

The prime minister warned of more restrictions unless the R reproduction rate fell to below one.

"Unless we palpably make progress we should assume that the restrictions that I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months," Johnson told the House of Commons, stressing that no effort was being spared to develop vaccines, treatments and testing.

And he warned people against developing a false sense of security if they had remained free of the virus over time. "That type of complacency could be our undoing," he said.

The key measures for England:

  • Office workers asked to work from home unless they need to travel to work

  • Table service only in pubs and restaurants from Thursday, closing time 10 pm latest

  • Mask wearing compulsory for indoor hospitality and retail staff, taxi passengers

  • COVID-secure guidelines to be legal obligations in retail, leisure and tourism

  • Wedding guest numbers reduced from a maximum of 30 to 15 from Monday

  • Plans to ease restrictions on sports events and conferences suspended

  • Fines for first offences concerning masks or gatherings to double to £200 (€218)

The government had already announced stricter fines for those breaking self-isolation rules, up to £10,000 (€10,909) for the worst offenders. Johnson said this would apply to businesses too.

The prime minister said that schools, colleges and universities would remain open.

But the suspension of plans to ease restrictions in sport means that crowds will not be returning to football and other stadiums for the foreseeable future. Indoor sports will also have to respect the "rule of six" measure.

The prime minister concluded his statement with an appeal to "remember the basics -- wash our hands, cover our faces, observe social distancing -- and follow the rules".

Scotland takes a tougher approach

Johnson said the United Kingdom's devolved administrations were taking similar steps to those he announced. Several areas in Britain are already under local lockdown.

Scotland is also imposing a similar 10 pm closing time for pubs and restaurants. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish parliament that the move would come into force from Friday, a day later than in England.

But for gatherings, the clampdown in Scotland is stronger than in England, where people can meet up in groups of up to six.

Nicola Sturgeon said that from Wednesday visiting other households indoors, and car-sharing with other households, would be banned. The measure already applies in parts of western Scotland.

The number of daily new coronavirus cases in Scotland is now 40 times what it was in July.

Further restrictions guidance is also being issued in Wales, while more restrictions are being imposed in Northern Ireland. There, different households will mostly be banned from mixing indoors from Tuesday night.

Tory tensions over restrictions

Johnson's update follows meetings of his Cabinet and the government's crisis committee, COBRA, which Sturgeon attended. He will also make a televised address to the nation on Tuesday night about efforts to combat the virus.

Responding to his announcement in parliament, opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer said Labour supported the new measures.

However, there has been concern among backbench MPs including from the ruling Conservative Party, some of whom are wary of constraints on freedom and challenged the prime minister in parliament. There were objections to "blanket restrictions", and a lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the government's decisions.

MPs from various parties also asked questions about healthcare in areas other than COVID-19, protection for vulnerable groups and aid for those in economic difficulty.

The 10 pm pub closing time has been strongly criticised as counter-productive by some hospitality business leaders, who say it could lead to earlier binge drinking and later house parties.

In the video player above: watch the prime minister's announcement and Q&A in the House of Commons.

'This is all of our problem'

In a televised statement on Monday, the UK's scientific advisor Sir Patrick Vallance said with "cases doubling roughly every seven days", there could be 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October if the surge continues unabated.

Speaking alongside Chris Whitty, the UK's chief medical officer, Vallance said the "increase in case numbers has translated into a rise in hospitalisations, and deaths are also increasing", warning that what was needed was "speed and action, and enough to bring that rate down".

Whitty warned the UK is expected to see a rise in deaths from COVID-19, in line with the recent rise in cases and hospitalisations, as seen in other countries.

“We have, in a very bad sense, literally turned a corner,” he said.

Whitty 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.’’