The U.K. government is telling the public to work from home again if possible, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to announce new restrictions on bars and restaurants in a bid to halt a surge in coronavirus cases.
“If it is possible for people to work from home, then we’d encourage them to do so,” Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said on Sky News on Tuesday. “There is going to be a shift in emphasis.”
From Thursday, hospitality venues across England will be required to close by 10 p.m. and to limit all transactions to table service only, as ministers clamp down on socializing. Officials will also stop moves to allow crowds to return to live sporting venues.
The measures represent a reversal of efforts to re-open the economy after the first national lockdown shuttered social and commercial activity in March, sparking the deepest U.K. recession in more than 100 years.
Over the summer, Johnson’s government encouraged the public to go back to work, spend in shops and paid for discounts to incentivize people to eat out in pubs and restaurants. But the resurgence of the virus has forced officials to halt these efforts and bring back restrictions.
The question is whether the new curbs being unveiled on Tuesday will be enough to reduce the spread of the disease. Johnson is attempting to balance public health with avoiding another economically damaging full national lockdown — and it’s a debate that has split his cabinet.
On a day of intense activity in London on Tuesday, Johnson will consult with senior officials and the leaders of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales at a meeting of the so-called Cobra emergency committee before briefing Parliament on further curbs. He will then make a broadcast to the nation at 8 p.m.
“No one underestimates the challenges the new measures will pose to many individuals and businesses,” Johnson’s office said in an email. “We know this won’t be easy, but we must take further action to control the resurgence in cases of the virus.”
Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance warned Monday that the current infection rate, at which the number of cases is doubling every week, could lead to 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October without urgent action.
Figures released Monday showed 1,261 people in England hospitalized with Covid-19, up from 782 a week earlier, with 154 of them on ventilators, up from 88. The chief medical officers for the four U.K. nations recommended the coronavirus alert status should rise one notch to Level 4, meaning cases are “now rising rapidly and probably exponentially.”
Senior officials have repeatedly warned interventions would be needed if infections rose, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Johnson will set out “necessary” steps to control the spread of the disease.
“We can either take measures now or we will end up with a much bigger problem, still having to take measures later,” he told lawmakers Monday.
The Times of London newspaper reported attendance at weddings may be cut to 15 guests from 30.
Johnson, already facing criticism over failures in the U.K.’s testing system and confused messaging over measures to stop the spread of the disease, came under renewed fire from members of his own party who want restrictions lifted to allow the economy to recover. They accused ministers of stifling debate about their plans in the House of Commons.
Pauline Latham, a Tory MP, asked Hancock to “explain to the prime minister that we actually live in a democracy not a dictatorship,” while Graham Brady, another member of Johnson’s party, warned that “political judgments are improved by debate and scrutiny.”
Hancock promised there would be a debate in Parliament and said the speed at which decisions have to be made during the pandemic means it isn’t always possible to consult lawmakers beforehand.
‘Slow the Spread’
London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for further restrictions in the capital and said the failure of the government’s test-and-trace system has resulted in a lack of information about the spread of the disease that makes action inevitable.
“Without adequate testing or contact tracing in London we have no choice but to look at other measures to slow the spread of the virus,” Khan said in a statement. “Taking firm action now to prevent a deeper and longer lockdown in the future is without a doubt the best thing to both save lives, and protect jobs and our economic recovery.”
Khan’s comments reflect concern that a wave of large-scale restrictions could stifle the U.K.’s recovery and worsen a spike in unemployment later this year.
The rebound, which has so far been quicker than officials expected, has been helped by resurgent consumer spending, which would be imperiled by widespread closures of pubs and restaurants. JPMorgan Chase estimated a two-week shutdown of the U.K. hospitality sector could knock at least 2% off the nation’s gross domestic product.
While the economic hit would likely be less severe than the previous lockdown, major restrictions would also add to the argument for more action from the Bank of England, which said last week that a resurgence in the virus is likely to slow the U.K.’s rebound. Officials’ current projections, which see the economy recovering pre-crisis levels next year, are based on an easing of virus uncertainty and avoiding a nationwide lockdown.
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