Coronavirus: New nationwide restrictions cannot be ruled out, government admits

Assessment within two weeks of whether Boris Johnson’s ‘rule of six’ has worked

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 16 September 2020 16:21 BST
(AFP via Getty Images)

Nationwide restrictions on social activities have not been ruled out if coronavirus cases continue to surge two to three weeks after the imposition of Boris Johnson’s “rule of six”, government sources have confirmed.

But ministers are said to be exceptionally reluctant to return to national lockdown and remain hopeful that any tightening of restrictions can be kept to a local level and tailored to the specific circumstances of each outbreak.

A senior official at Public Health England today indicated that this could include curfews in London to prevent drinkers socialising into the early hours, when observation of social distancing rules is likely to break down.

There are hopes in Whitehall that the prospect of a return to the kind of restrictions seen in the spring will encourage the public in England to knuckle down to the new requirement announced by the prime minister last Wednesday to limit social gatherings to six people, inside or out of doors.

Boris Johnson today told the House of Commons Liaison Committee:  “I don’t want a second national lockdown – I think it would be completely wrong for this country and we are going to do everything in our power to prevent it.

“And can we afford it? I very much doubt that the financial consequences would be anything but disastrous, but we have to make sure that we defeat the disease by the means that we have set out. 

“So when I see people arguing against the rule of six or saying that the Government is coming in too hard on individual liberties and so on – I totally understand that and I sympathise with that, but we must, must defeat this disease."

Mr Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock have been troubled by the  surge in Covid-19 infections from around 1,000 a day at the end of August to almost 3,500 last weekend, coinciding with the return of millions of children to school and a continuing flow of employees going back to the workplace.

The increase came amid growing concern about the availability of coronavirus tests, with floods of reports of people being told to travel hundreds of miles to testing centres. Mr Johnson today blamed a “colossal spike” in demand from the public and urged people only to seek a test where necessary, while health secretary Matt Hancock is preparing a new rationing system to ensure those most in need are able to access them.

However, officials are not yet voicing concern over the absence of an immediate dip in coronavirus cases following the introduction of the “rule of six”.

Because coronavirus symptoms do not typically manifest for at least 5-7 days and sometimes longer following infection, and there is then another time lag while patients seek tests and receive their results, it is not thought possible to judge the impact of an intervention for up to two or three weeks after its introduction.

Ministers want to get the message across that during that period, the public has a golden opportunity to bring cases right back down by adhering closely to rules on hygiene, face-coverings and social distancing, including the six-person rule.

“Two weeks is the earliest we will see if there’s been an impact,” said a government source.

“If at that point cases are still increasing at the rate they have been, we will have to look at whatever else we should be doing to bring them down.”

While this is likely to focus on targeted interventions aimed at specific hotspots in particular areas, whether students returning to university, outbreaks in workplaces or localised spread through bars and restaurants, nationwide restrictions have not been ruled out.

“There’s no appetite to do that, but you can’t ever take it off the table.”

Professor Kevin Fenton, London director of Public Health England called on the public to “pull together” to put a lid on the rise in Covid cases and prevent the need for tighter restrictions on everyday life.

But he said measures like curfews cannot be ruled out if numbers continue to rise.

Around 10 London boroughs have coronavirus rates of 30 cases per 100,000 and infections are likely to rise when half a million students arrive in the capital to start university term, he said.

Prof Fenton told the Evening Standard that the aim was to avoid lockdowns, adding: “Before we get to that stage there are many other things that you can do in order to help to reduce the risk of transmission and contain your outbreak.

“In some areas which have seen resurgence there have been limits placed on the amount of time you can spend socialising. In some it might be local curfews so you’re not out drinking until the wee hours of the morning.

“By limiting that you also limit the amount of time people are spending in close contact with others.”

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