8 September 2020. The Guardian, UK: The government has announced emergency action to try and stem a feared autumn resurgence of coronavirus, tightening laws to ban virtually all gatherings of more than six people in England.
Amid concerns that the current rules are both widely misunderstood and too difficult for police to implement, Boris Johnson will hold a hastily-arranged Downing Street press conference on Wednesday to outline the new restrictions.
The dramatic change of approach by No 10 follows a sudden spike in the number of people being infected with the virus, with almost 8,500 positive tests being recorded in England in the last three days.
On Tuesday ministers added Bolton to the number of cities and towns under local lockdowns, restricting restaurants and pubs to takeaways and forcing all venues to close from 10pm to 5am.
Bottlenecks in laboratories processing Covid tests have hampered the government’s attempts to keep on top of the pandemic. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, warned that the test-and-trace system is “on the verge of collapse”.
With the government saying delays to tests could take two weeks to address, headteachers and care homes have warned of potential knock-on effects in trying to contain new outbreaks.
Ministers have been increasingly worried that younger people ignoring the rules has helped push the daily rate of positive coronavirus tests in the UK to 2,400 or above for three consecutive days. The fear is that currently low levels of hospital admissions for Covid-19 could also shoot up, as older relatives and other more vulnerable people are infected.
Under current rules for England, guidelines limit most outdoor gatherings to six people, or no more than two households or household bubbles if people are meeting indoors.
The law allows for a higher limit of 30 people, but this is supposed to only be in place for a community event or a gathering such as a wedding. Up until now the police have had no powers to stop gatherings of up to 30 and ministers believe it has been widely abused.
This will change from Monday to reduce the default maximum to six, making it easier for police to identify and disperse illegal gatherings.
In comments released in advance of the press conference by No 10, Johnson said: “We need to act now to stop the virus spreading. So we are simplifying and strengthening the rules on social contact – making them easier to understand and for the police to enforce.”
Downing Street had hinted at a possible change to the rules, but it had not been expected immediately. The accelerated timetable follows a cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning where Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, told ministers that urgent action was needed.
It also comes after an online meeting Johnson held with police forces last week, where officers said they wanted to see simpler rules on social distancing.
The new limit, which comes into effect on Monday, applies across all of England and in both private and public spaces, including parks, pubs and restaurants. It also covers all ages, meaning children will be prevented from gathering in larger groups, for example to play informal games of football.
The only exemptions are when households or support bubbles are larger than six people; where gatherings are for work or education purposes; or for weddings, funerals, and organised team sports conducted in a safe way.
Detailed explanations of the changes are yet to be published. For now, rules elsewhere in the UK remain unchanged. In Scotland, gatherings are limited to five households outdoors, or three households indoors. In Wales, the outdoor limit is still 30, but indoors people are discouraged from all contact with people outside their household.
In parallel with Johnson’s press conference, the government will launch a new public information campaign on Wednesday to reiterate messaging on handwashing and mask use.
It follows new rules for Bolton unveiled by Matt Hancock, the health secretary, which means that guidance barring people from socialising outside of their households will also be made law.
There are an average of 120 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 of the population in Bolton, meaning it has the highest rate in the country. The rise in Bolton is “partly due to socialising by people in their 20s and 30s” Hancock told the Commons, explaining that contact tracers had identified a number of pubs where the virus had spread.
Unveiling the measures which will be imposed immediately, Hancock said: “We will restrict all hospitality to takeaway only, and will introduce a late-night restriction of operating hours which will mean all venues will be required to close from 10pm to 5am.
“We’ll introduce urgently further measures that put the current guidance that people cannot socialise outside their household into law.”
Bolton council said on Saturday it was introducing tougher measures “with immediate effect”, asking people not to mix with other households in any setting, either indoors or outdoors, and to only use public transport for essential purposes.
The Conservative leader of Bolton Council, councillor David Greenhalgh, said the measures were “not something we want to do but it is clear the virus is currently moving round the borough uncontrolled and so we need to halt the transmission rate”.
“The rate has gone from 15 cases per 100,000 to over 120 in the space of two weeks, and if we do not get control of the virus now we will continue to put our most vulnerable residents at risk and delay any return to normality,” he said.
Leaders across much of northern England on Tuesday pleaded with residents to “do their bit” to avoid further lockdown measures. Representatives of every local authority in the north-east wrote an open letter to lambast the “significant minority” of residents having house parties and ignoring the rules, saying they were “deeply concerned” at the increasing number of positive coronavirus cases, particularly among young adults.