Just weeks ago Boris Johnson had proudly boasted things would return to normal by Christmas as he threw open bars, cafes, restaurants and hairdressers.
But the PM’s optimism took a massive dent tonight as he slammed the brakes on lifting more lockdown restrictions because coronavirus rates had soared by 50% in just a week.
It sparked fury among businesses such as bowling alleys, ice rinks and casinos, which were expected to reopen today but were then given just a day’s notice they could not.
And the move comes a day after No 10 imposed further lockdown curbs on four million people in the North.
It will lead to accusations Mr Johnson lifted restrictions too early in a bid to kickstart the economy. There was also confusion as shielding for 2.2 million vulnerable people will still end today along with financial support, despite the rising virus cases.
Acting Lib Dem leader Ed Davey said: “The Government’s communications over the past few days have been woefully incompetent to say the least.
“Individuals have no idea of the rules, let alone the reasoning behind some of them. Of course the Government need to move quickly to stop the spread of coronavirus, but this does not excuse their shambolic approach.
“Without clear messaging, people will not be able to follow the rules properly. By not only ending the furlough scheme, but the financial support for all those shielding, millions of people are faced with risking their health in returning to work when it isn’t safe or not being able to put food on the table.”
Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty also dashed Mr Johnson’s hopes of a full return to normality anytime soon. He said: “The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong.
“I think what we’re seeing from the data is we have probably reached near the limit or the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society.
“So what that means potentially is that if we wish to do more things in the future, we may have to do less of some other things. These will be difficult trade-offs.”
The Office for National Statistics released its latest data on new Covid-19 infections yesterday. There were 4,200 fresh cases from July 20 to 26 – up from 2,800 the previous week. And the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies announced it is “no longer confident that R is currently below one in England”.
As the UK death rate rose by 120 to 46,119 yesterday, Mr Johnson insisted the reopening of society had always been “conditional on continued progress against the virus”.
He said: “The prevalence of the virus in the community, in England, is likely to be rising for the first time since May.
“With numbers creeping up it was time to squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control.” The PM also introduced yet another slogan – “Hands, face, space, get a test”. Explaining it, he added: “We need to follow the rules, wash our hands, cover our faces, keep our distance and get a test if we have symptoms.”
Plans to reopen remaining closed businesses have been postponed for at least two weeks. Pilot schemes to restart socially distanced events such as indoor performances and large crowds at sporting events have also been put on hold. There was no change in the guidance for staff to go back to the workplace where possible from today. But TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady warned it would be “heartless and reckless” to demand the immediate return of shielding workers. She said: “After self-isolation for months, requiring shielding workers to immediately travel to workplaces may cause anxiety.”
And 15 charities, including Age UK, have written to No 10 branding the ending of support for those shielding “desperately unfair”.
The mandatory wearing of face coverings will be extended in England to places including galleries, cinemas and places of worship.