Coronavirus: 'We've reached a perilous turning point', says Boris Johnson


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Media captionBoris Johnson: “It would be tempting to think the threat had faded”

The UK has reached “a perilous turning point”, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said, as he set out a raft of new coronavirus restrictions for England which could last for up to six months.

Shop staff will have to wear face masks and weddings will be limited to a maximum of 15 people, under the rules.

Fines for breaking laws on gatherings and not wearing a mask will increase to £200 for a first offence.

He also warned “significantly greater restrictions” could come if necessary.

Mr Johnson said “similar steps” would be taken across the UK after he met with the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on Tuesday morning.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also announced a 22:00 curfew for hospitality businesses but went further on restrictions, banning the visiting of other households indoors.

In the House of Common, the prime minister told MPs: “We always knew that while we might have driven the virus into retreat, the prospect of a second wave was real. I’m sorry to say that, as in Spain and France and many other countries, we’ve reached a perilous turning point.”

Mr Johnson said the government would provide police and local authorities in England with extra funding to enforce the regulations and the option to draw on military support.

He said the new rules were “carefully judged” to achieve the maximum reduction in the R number – which measures how quickly the virus is spreading – while causing “the minimum damage to lives and livelihoods”.

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The prime minister said this was “by no means a return to the full lockdown of March”, with no general instructions to stay at home. Businesses, schools, colleges and universities will remain open.

Attendance figures show the number of schools in England sending home groups of pupils due to Covid-19 incidents quadrupled in a week, however.

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Media captionCovid restrictions: PM addresses the Commons, telling MPs of new hospitality and face covering rules

In the last fortnight, hospital admissions have doubled and Covid-19 is likely to spread faster in winter, Mr Johnson said, adding: “So this is the moment when we must act.”

If these restrictions fail to bring the R number below one – the point where the epidemic is no longer growing – “then we reserve the right to deploy greater fire power with significantly greater restrictions” he said.

The latest R estimate for the whole of the UK is between 1.1 and 1.4.

Mr Johnson said: “We will spare no effort in developing vaccines, treatments, new forms of mass-testing but unless we palpably make progress we should assume that the restrictions that I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months.”

Under the new measures for England:

  • Penalties for not wearing a mask or gathering in groups of more than six will increase to £200 on the first offence
  • From Thursday, all pubs, bars and restaurants will be restricted to table service only. Takeaways can continue
  • Hospitality venues must close at 22:00 from Thursday – which means shutting then, not calling for last orders (in Scotland the same curfew rule comes into force on Friday)
  • Office workers are being told to work from home if possible
  • The planned return of spectators to sports venues will now not go ahead from 1 October
  • Face coverings must be worn by shop staff, taxi drivers and passengers
  • Customers in indoor hospitality venues will also have to wear masks, except when seated at a table to eat or drink
  • Exemptions to the “rule of six” will be cut back, meaning indoor team sports such as five-a-side football matches will end.
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Restating her support for people working from home, Scotland’s first minister also announced her government may impose a “legal duty” on employers to allow home working.

Ms Sturgeon said enforcement of coronavirus rules for the public in Scotland is “under review” but added: “Supporting people to do the right thing is much more effective than threatening harsh punishment if they cannot.”

The first minister also said the new restrictions on visiting other households would be reviewed every three weeks – and stressed that they would “not necessarily” be in place for as long as six months.

‘Tough calls are still to come’

With hospital admissions and deaths still low, there is a window of opportunity before more difficult decisions have to be taken.

That’s why the restrictions taken by ministers, which may be in place for as long as six months, are somewhat more limited than the warning by scientists on Monday that cases could reach 50,000 cases a day suggested was needed.

But even if the public does take more care and these steps have an impact, it remains doubtful the rise in cases will actually be stopped.

This is a virus which can be transmitted silently – people are infectious before symptoms develop, while some do not even develop any – and we are entering the time of year when respiratory illnesses circulate more and deaths start to increase.

Most experts doubt the 50,000-cases-a-day figure will be reached by October, but it would be a big surprise if the infection rate does not continue to gradually climb.

The government will then have a big decision to take – not necessarily about whether to introduce a full lockdown – but if more significant steps such as stopping households mixing and closing hospitality and leisure facilities are needed.

How far is it prepared to go to contain the virus? How much economic pain and disruption to people’s live and to wider wellbeing is worth the lives that are at risk?

The really tough calls are still to come.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he supported “necessary” stricter measures, but added that families were worried “the government doesn’t have a strategy”.

“One day people were encouraged to work in the office, in fact more than encouraged they were openly challenged by the prime minister for not doing so. Today they’re told the opposite,” he said.

“This is a time of national crisis but we need clear leadership.”

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Media captionLabour leader Keir Starmer accuses the government of not having a “clear strategy” for the pandemic

Sir Keir also said it would be a “disaster” to withdraw the furlough scheme – which is due to end next month – in “one fell swoop” with no additional support for people whose jobs might be at risk.

The governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, suggested some sectors may benefit from further targeted help.

The Confederation of British Industry, which represents business, said it was “desperately urgent” to announce a targeted replacement for the furlough scheme.

“It has saved thousands and thousands of jobs but there is a cliff-edge looming. And, now, with today’s announcement that is more urgent than ever,” said director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn.

Some business owners said the new rules would make life even harder. Marc Gough, who runs a crockery and glassware business in the wedding and events sector, said the cut to the limit for weddings to 15 was “heart breaking”.

“I can’t earn a living because you’re restricting me to weddings of 15 people,” Mr Gough told BBC Radio 5 live, adding that the turnover of his business had fallen from £750,000 to £20,000.

“To walk into that warehouse, to put a smile on my face to the staff that I have left, to the clients that I deal with constantly, the brides, it’s truly heart breaking,” he said.

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