Boris Johnson Puts Brakes on Easing Lockdown as Covid Cases Tick Up

Boris Johnson slowed the easing of England’s coronavirus restrictions and said a resurgence of the disease across the country must be stamped out.

The prime minister postponed plans to allow high-risk venues such as casinos, bowling alleys and ice rinks to re-open on Saturday. They will have to wait at least another two weeks, he said.

Johnson also extended rules on face coverings, making them compulsory in more indoor settings, including museums and cinemas, and said police will enforce compliance from Aug. 8.

While he insisted he does not want to reimpose a “full national lockdown,” the premier said the public must obey the rules to avoid more drastic action.

“Our assessment is that we should now squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control,” Johnson said in a televised press conference on Friday. “We cannot be complacent. I won’t stand by and allow this virus to cause more pain and more heartache in our country.”

Rushing

Johnson’s announcement came after ministers rushed to re-impose restrictions on more than four million people in northern England, including Manchester, barring members of different households from mingling indoors. On Friday, the devolved government in Edinburgh advised Scottish residents against traveling to the affected areas of northwest England.

The prime minister said prevalence of the virus in England is at 1 person per 1,500, up from 1 in 2,000 at the start of July. “We can’t afford to ignore this evidence,” he said. “Unless people follow the rules and behave safely, we may need to go further.”

Wedding ceremonies can still take place, but they’ll no longer be able to include 30 people, Johnson said.

New data published by the government on Friday showed the so-called R number, representing how many people each new Covid patient infects, may be above the critical threshold of 1 in the northwest and southwest of England. Beyond that level, transmission can begin to take off exponentially.

Reaching Limit

The data also showed the number may be at or near 1 in the rest of England, though in London and other areas, low case numbers and variable transmission “means these estimates are insufficiently robust to inform policy decisions,” the government said.

RegionR
England0.8-1.0
East of England0.7-1.0
London0.8-1.0
Midlands0.7-0.9
North East and Yorkshire0.7-0.9
North West0.8-1.1
South East0.8-1.0
South West0.8-1.1

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that, if the virus is to be kept under control, the country has probably reached the limit for easing lockdown restrictions in place since March.

“The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong,” he said. “We are at the outer edge of what we can do.”

After being criticized for being slow to lock down at the beginning of the pandemic, Johnson’s government is now rushing out new restrictions with little warning.

‘New Low’

The announcement of renewed measures in parts of northern England late on Thursday gave residents just three hours’ notice of the new rules. It followed the re-imposition of quarantine on people coming from Spain last weekend that caught hundreds of thousands of tourists by surprise.

“No one would argue with putting in place local action to reduce the transmission of coronavirus,” Labour leader Keir Starmer said. “But announcing measures affecting potentially millions of people late at night on Twitter is a new low for the government’s communications during this crisis.”

The new measures also highlight the tension between attempts to stamp out the virus while getting the economy moving again. From Saturday, employers will have more discretion on whether to bring workers back into their offices, a change from guidance that where possible, people should work from home.

And the blanket nature of Thursday’s fresh restrictions on a large swath of northern England highlights the risk that the government’s test and trace system -- designed to reach people who have been in close contact with newly-infected patients -- may not be effective enough to target small localized outbreaks.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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