Boris Johnson will today impose a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants, ban ordering at the bar and encourage working from home as he tries to rally the country in a renewed fight against coronavirus.
The Covid alert system was raised to its second most severe level last night before new restrictions that the prime minister will say are needed to prevent the return of a nationwide growth in infections.
From Thursday venues will be legally required to close earlier and to offer table service only. Ministers met last night to decide which of the exemptions to the rule of six will be dropped, with indoor sporting events the most likely. The number allowed to attend weddings could also be reduced from 30 to 15, it is understood.
After weeks of ministers encouraging people to return to the office, they will also be asked to consider working from home.
The nation was prepared for another six months of tougher social distancing rules in a briefing by the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser. They warned that without action there could be 50,000 cases and more than 200 deaths a day within two months.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, played down hopes of a vaccine being widely available before the spring. In a joint briefing from Downing Street they sought to counter the main arguments against tougher measures, saying that the virus was rising in all age groups and across the country. They pointed to rising deaths in France and Spain as warnings of what would happen without immediate action.
Urging people to stick to social distancing and hygiene rules, Professor Whitty said that the virus could not be regarded as “somebody else’s problem”. Britain had “turned a corner” into fast exponential growth and “we have to break unnecessary links between households, because that is the way in which this virus is transmitted”, he said.
Mr Johnson will address the nation in a recorded speech to be broadcast at 8pm after a meeting with Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister, and the other leaders of the devolved administrations, a cabinet meeting and a Commons statement. He will say that it is still possible to avoid further restrictions if the country takes swift action now, allies said. He will repeat that he is determined to avoid closing schools and universities. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told the Commons that the government had “a strategy of suppressing the virus while protecting the economy and education”.
Ministers are worried about low compliance rates among the young, students and some members of hard-to-reach communities. The flouting of rules has contributed to cases rising to a level estimated at 31 per 100,000, with a national “R” rate of 1.4. The restrictions announced today will be cast as a first step, with others held in reserve if more action is required in a fortnight. The option of a two-week lockdown to coincide with half-term is among measures still under consideration.
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, said: “The government has got into the habit of ruling by decree in respect to the coronavirus issue without the usual debate and discussion and votes in parliament that we would expect on any other matter.”
Commenting on the news, Essex based publican Adam Brooks said: “Yet again, the pub industry will be hit hard on the back of a box ticked and not on any scientific evidence at all.
The government has just created a house party and rave scenario beyond the wildest prediction models, it is a crazy decision.”