The public in England will once again be asked to work from home if they can, Michael Gove has said, signalling a U-turn in government advice to combat the spread of coronavirus that he said could help “avert the need for more serious action in the future”.
In broadcast interviews before Boris Johnson sets out the full raft of measures in the Commons later on Tuesday, Gove described the latest change in restrictions as a “shift in emphasis” but unavoidable. He told Sky News: “The rate of infection is increasing, the number of people going to hospital is increasing, and therefore we need to act.”
Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, later told the BBC’s Today programme: “We are stressing that if it is safe to work in your workplace, if you are in a Covid-secure workplace, then you should be there if your job requires it.
“But, if you can work from home you should.”
Gove said it was not a case of “revisiting the days at the beginning of our response to this virus” as he said that now “workplaces are safer”, telling BBC Breakfast: “But one of the risks that we have to face is that social mixing overall contributes to the spread of the virus. So as much as we can restrain that as possible at this stage, the better for all of us and for public health.”
He also said that plans for a partial return of sports fans to stadiums from 1 October have been “paused”.
“It is the case that we’ve been piloting some open air venues, and we do want to be able in due course to allow people to return to watch football and other sporting events,” he said. “But it is the case that we just need to be cautious at the moment and I think a mass reopening at this stage wouldn’t be appropriate.”
Gove set out the latest changes to the government’s coronavirus policy after it emerged on Monday night that pubs, bars and restaurants in England will have to shut by 10pm from Thursday as part of measures to halt an “exponential” rise in coronavirus cases.
The new measures come after two days of debate among cabinet ministers and experts and are softer than those mooted in advice from government scientific advisers in recent weeks, which had included a two-week full lockdown as a “circuit-breaker”.
But they will be welcomed by ministers including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, who argued that more severe steps would come at too great a cost to the economy.
The new rules also fall short of what some senior local leaders had been expecting, it is understood, and there are concerns that they will not change behaviour significantly. Northern Ireland is going further by banning all mixing between different households indoors.
Gove was unable to say how long the new coronavirus measures are expected to last. But when pressed on whether it would be months or weeks, he said: “It is the case, as [chief scientific and medical officers] Professor Vallance and Chris Whitty pointed out yesterday, that we’re going to have a challenging next six months.”
He added that plans to bring 80% of civil servants back to work by the end of the month had now been put on hold.
On the Today programme, Gove said that the so-called “rule of six” was staying, as it was “simple, straightforward and well-understood”. Pressed about whether people could drink in the pub in a group of six until 10pm and then continue to drink at someone’s house, he said that they could.
Under pressure to say specifically whether under the new restrictions he would go out for dinner with his wife and another couple, or invite two other couples to his home for dinner, he said: “I would follow the guidance, and common sense dictates what the wisest thing to do would be.”
Declining to set out any specific examples of changes he would be making himself, he said: “I think that the restrictions we’re putting in place make it clear that there are types of activity which all of us should seek to restrict, but overall when it comes to unnecessary or additional social contact, a balance has to be struck.”
Labour’s Lisa Nandy said that the government needed to “act now to prevent further lockdowns”. She told Today: “In the end the government cannot avoid the fact that it has got to get a grip on the test, trace and isolate system, that is the way out of this crisis.”
But she suggested that if Johnson set out further measures in the Commons “based on evidence” then Labour would support them.
Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin told the Today programme that the news about pubs and restaurants would be a “terrible blow” to the hospitality sector.
But he added of the latest coronavirus data: “It’s a very strong nudge to people that we are in a very serious situation. What would be the worst case is if we have to have another major lockdown.”
He added that there must be proper scrutiny from MPs of any measures, saying: “I certainly agree that Parliament should debate and vote on this.”