The UK government on Tuesday tightened restrictions to stem a rising tide of coronavirus cases, ordering pubs in England to shut early and abandoning calls for people to return to the workplace to help kickstart the battered economy.
Britain is following Europe in facing a second wave of infection and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said measures were needed now to prevent further, more costly, action later.
“This is the moment we must act,” he told parliament. “We’re acting on the principle that a stitch in time, saves nine.”
Johnson said the measures, which could be in place for up to six months, would be bolstered by greater penalties for infringements, a boosted police presence and military back-up.
“If all our actions fail to bring the R (reproduction rate) below one, then we reserve the right to deploy greater firepower with significantly greater restrictions,” he added.
“Your harmless cough can be someone else’s death knell,” he warned.
Government scientists have painted a grim picture of up to 50,000 coronavirus cases a day by mid-October and more than 200 deaths a day a month later if no action is taken.
Johnson, battling sustained criticism for his handling of the outbreak, brushed aside renewed anger from the hospitality sector, which is still trying to get back on its feet.
Pubs, bars and restaurants will have to close early at 10:00 pm (2100 GMT) from Thursday, while face coverings will be made compulsory for staff in retail, as well as in taxis.
From Monday, weddings and receptions will only be allowed a maximum of 15 people, although funerals can still have up to 30 in attendance.
But Johnson’s call for people to work from home again wherever possible comes just months after the government encouraged the opposite.
He also called a halt to the planned phased return of fans to live sporting events in England from October 1, despite huge losses and fears some clubs could go under.
In the latest sign of the fallout of the coronavirus closure, UK leisure group Whitbread announced it could shed up to 6,000 jobs at its hotel and restaurant chains.
Pub chain Wetherspoons also said 1,000 of its staff at UK airports had been warned that up to 450 jobs were at risk.
‘Keep people sober’
Almost 42,000 people who tested positive for COVID-19 have died in Britain—the worst death toll in Europe.
Another 4,368 positive cases were recorded on Monday in levels not seen since early May when the country was still subject to a nationwide stay-at-home order.
As ministers warned of a “tipping point”, the COVID-19 alert level was raised from level three to four, indicating that rates of transmission were now “high or rising exponentially”.
Johnson said some 13 million people were already under local restrictions in swathes of northern and central England that have recorded high numbers of cases.
Concerns have been raised that shutting pubs early could lead to unregulated events and house parties where the virus could spread easily, particularly among young people.
Customers outside cafes in central London were broadly supportive of the new rules if it meant avoiding another lockdown, given concern about large numbers of people at pubs.
“It isn’t all about the money,” Francesca Galluzzo, an operations manager, told AFP. “It should be about people’s lives.”
Jennifer Cole, a biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway University, rejected suggestions the early closing time would make little difference.
“We know that the biggest influences in people’s risk-taking behaviour is alcohol. The more drunk you are, the less inhibited and less risk-averse you are,” she said.
“Closing the bars and restaurants at 10:00 pm simply keeps more people sober” and more likely to take preventative measures, such as wearing face coverings on public transport, she added.
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