LONDON — The British government backed a series of measures Wednesday it hopes will stem a worrying increase in new coronavirus cases, particularly among young adults, including a legally enforced ban on any social gatherings of more than six people in England.
In the biggest reversal of the months-long easing of the lockdown, it said social gatherings in England will be limited to a maximum of six people, either inside or outside of the home. The new limit will be in place from Monday and police will be able to fine, and even arrest, anyone breaching the rules.
Among other measures, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “COVID-secure marshals” will be introduced to help ensure social distancing in city centers.
Acknowledging that the myriad of rules on gatherings have become “complicated and confusing,” Johnson said more clarity was required in light of the recent sharp spike in cases in a country that has seen Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak.
“Now you only need to remember the ‘rule of six,’” he said at a media briefing behind a podium bearing the government’s new slogan “Hands Face Space.”
The new limits on gatherings are set to be in place for months, a timescale that potentially dashes any hopes of large family gatherings during Christmas.
Johnson said he was “still hopeful” that the “moonshot” of mass testing in the community — accompanied by results within minutes — could bring many aspects of life back to some sort of normality, even of ending the need for social distancing among those who test negative. He reiterated that the government was aiming for 500,000 daily tests by the end of October, more than double the current amount.
The new limit on gatherings follows a near doubling in new confirmed virus infections over the past week or so that government figures show has been largely seen among young adults, particularly those between the ages of 17 and 21. On Sunday and Monday, the number of daily laboratory-confirmed positive cases hit nearly 3,000, falling slightly since then to 2,659 on Wednesday.
Citing examples from Belgium, where restrictions on gatherings have helped stem a sharp rise in infection, the government’s chief medical officer said limits on gatherings can help prevent the spike in cases among young adults from seeping through to more vulnerable people, such as the elderly, in the run-up to winter.
“This is clear indication that if you act rapidly and decisively when these changes are happening, there is a reasonable chance, a good chance, to bring the rates back under control,” Chris Whitty said.
“People shouldn’t just see this as a very short term thing,” he said. “They should see it over the next period. But I think putting an exact time on it is, I think, very difficult.”
Though there are exemptions, such as for schools, workplaces and “life events” like funerals and weddings, Johnson said he is hopeful the new limits will be easily understood and followed. Those flouting the rules could be fined — 100 pounds ($130) for a first offense, and up to a potential 3,200 pounds (more than $4,000).
The other parts of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — haven’t followed suit though they also have their own different limitations on gatherings.
Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the school of medicine at the University of Leeds, said the new limits are “welcome and timely,” but that “it would be wise for all the (U.K.) nations to co-ordinate in their response, and to learn from each other where various approaches have been successful.”
In addition to the limits on social gatherings, Johnson announced a series of other measures, including legally requiring pub and restaurants to take the contact details of every customer for the purposes of the government’s test and trace program.
In addition to the COVID-secure marshals, Johnson also said the border force will step up enforcement efforts to ensure arrivals are complying with the quarantine rules. He also said plans to allow spectators back into stadiums as soon as October are being revised, though not necessarily ditched in full.
“These measures are not another national lockdown,” he said. “The whole point of them is to avoid another national lockdown.”
Johnson’s Conservative government has faced strong criticism for its mixed messages since it started easing the coronavirus lockdown in late spring. It spent much of the summer, for example, encouraging people to eat out to help the hard-pressed hospitality sector and is now urging workers to return to their offices to help hard-hit businesses in city centers.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the new shackles on everyday life represent an acknowledgement from the government that it had got things badly wrong in recent months.
“I think the government’s now acknowledged that their poor communications were a large part of the problem so that’s got to be fixed,” he said. “But we support the principle of the measures and we ask everybody to follow those rules.”
The U.K. has Europe’s worst death toll from the virus, with nearly 41,600 deaths within 28 days of testing positive. The actual toll is believed to be far higher as the government tally doesn’t include those who died without having been tested.
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