Coronavirus: Tighter national rules considered for England by government

General view of a road that has been pedestrianised to encourage social distancing and outdoor dining in the city centre, amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Oxford, Britain Image copyright Reuters

New England-wide measures which could include shutting hospitality businesses are being considered by the government to slow a surge of coronavirus cases.

A short period of tighter restrictions – lasting a few weeks – could be announced in the next week, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg says.

Schools and most workplaces would be kept open during those weeks.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told the BBC the government is “prepared to do what it takes” against Covid-19.

The health secretary said there had been an “acceleration” in the number of coronavirus cases in the last couple of weeks, and the number of people admitted to hospital with coronavirus was doubling about every eight days.

He stressed it was “critical” that people followed social distancing guidelines and local lockdown rules, where they applied, to “avoid having to take serious further measures”.

The government was basing its decisions on the Office for National Statistics’ weekly infections survey about the spread of coronavirus in England and Wales, the health secretary said.

It is estimated that 59,800 people in the community in England had coronavirus in the week to 10 September – roughly one in 900 people.

That equated to about 6,000 new cases each day in England. The number of cases that had been picked up in official daily tests climbed from 1,940 to 2,919 during that week – suggesting more than half of all cases were still going undetected.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said the next few days will be “critical” to avoid another full-scale lockdown in Scotland.

Ms Sturgeon, Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer have all asked Boris Johnson for an emergency Cobra meeting to be called.

‘Circuit-break’

At a meeting on Wednesday night, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser and medical adviser forecast that there would be a significant number of deaths by the end of October if there were no further interventions.

The possible measures being discussed – described by the government as a “circuit-break” – include asking some hospitality businesses to close, or limiting the opening hours of some pubs and restaurants nationwide.

No final decisions have yet been reached on the next course of action.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has said it is “not surprising national restrictions are back on the table” since the UK’s testing system is “collapsing”.

Basic maths shows us how quickly coronavirus cases can, theoretically, soar.

Around 4,000 infections a day, doubling every eight days, would be 128,000 new daily cases by the end of October.

That is not guaranteed to happen, and a change in our behaviour, the “rule of six” or restrictions like those in north-east England could improve the situation.

The point of a national “circuit-break” would be to achieve a controlled drop in the levels of coronavirus without needing a full lockdown.

This does two things, obviously it helps avoid having very high levels of the virus that could overwhelm hospitals.

But it also gives us more options. Any contact tracing programme or system of local lockdowns is far easier to implement when levels of the virus are low. The higher the number of cases, the fewer targeted measures the government has to use.

The problem is once the circuit-break is over, cases would begin to rise again and it may take multiple circuit breaks to get us through winter.

New rules have been announced for north-west England, the Midlands and West Yorkshire, to come into force from Tuesday, in an effort to control the spread of the virus.

Similar restrictions have already come into force in north-east England, affecting almost two million people, banning them from meeting people from other households and requiring restaurants and pubs to shut at 22:00 BST.

But it is understood the government has said no to a request by the local council to close bars and pubs in Leeds at 22:00 BST.

There are also local lockdown restrictions elsewhere in the UK – including Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Caerphilly, and the Belfast council area.

The four nations of the UK are in charge of their own lockdown restrictions, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland implementing slightly different rules to England.

Options for ministers

Under the so-called “circuit-break”, restrictions could be reintroduced in some public spaces nationwide for a period of a few weeks, but schools and workplaces would be kept open.

One of the ideas suggested by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is that some parts of the hospitality sector could be asked to close.

No 10 is also considering the possibility of limiting the opening hours of pubs and restaurants across the country, as has already happened in some areas.

The health secretary said the government’s current approach was “targeted interventions” and stressed “a national lockdown is the last line of defence”.

“The strategy is to keep the virus down as much as is possible whilst protecting education and the economy,” Mr Hancock added.

“And throw everything at the science which eventually is the way we’re going to spring out of this.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is understood to be deeply reluctant to order another national lockdown, where everyone would be asked to stay at home and businesses to close.

Earlier this week he described the potential impact of a second national lockdown on the economy as “disastrous”.

On Thursday morning, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is understood to have presented warnings of the damage to the economy.

Ministers are also concerned about the impact of more restrictions on daily life on those who need treatment for non-Covid related illnesses.

In other key developments:

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