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Boris Johnson unveils new rules to combat coronavirus second wave

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·5-min read
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks to Downing Street in central London on September 22, 2020 after attending the weekly meeting of the cabinet at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). - The UK government will on Tuesday announce new measures to curb rising coronavirus cases across England, hours after upgrading the virus alert level with top advisers warning of a surging death toll within two months without immediate action. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson walking to Downing Street on Tuesday, ahead of his announcement on tougher restrictions in parliament and televised speech later in the day. Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has announced a string of new curbs on everyday life in England, warning they could last six months as the country struggles to contain rising coronavirus cases.

Johnson told MPs in parliament on Tuesday: “We always knew that while we might have driven the virus into retreat, the prospect of a second wave was real and I’m sorry to say that, as in Spain and France and many other countries, we’ve reached a perilous turning point.”

He said no government wanted to “stifle our freedoms,” but the UK had to act now to avoid “still graver consequences later on” with infection, hospitalisation and death rates again rising across Britain.

Watch: What are the new COVID-19 measures announced by the PM?

The prime minister detailed a string of new restrictions in England, with similar measures expected to be announced soon by devolved administrations in the rest of the UK:

  • Retail staff, taxi and private hire users, and hospitality customers not seated will have to wear face masks.

  • COVID-secure guidelines for retail, tourism, leisure and other sectors will become “legal obligations.” Businesses who break COVID-19 rules will risk fines, Johnson added.

  • Hospitality firms will have to close altogether at 10pm, not merely ceasing trading as some in the industry had hoped, and offer table service only.

  • Attendance numbers for wedding ceremonies and receptions will be slashed from 30 to 15 from Monday, and a six-person limit applied to adult indoor sports, though the cap on funeral numbers remains at 30.

  • Penalties for not wearing masks or breaking the “rule of six” will double to £200.

  • Plans to reopen conferences and large sporting events have been put on hold.

  • Office workers are now being urged to work from home where possible.

READ MORE: UK economy shuffles into new rules on home working and pub closure times

Johnson warned if the actions failed to bring the R rate below 1, the government “reserved the right to deploy greater firepower” with tighter restrictions.

“Unless we palpably make progress, we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months,” he added. He apologised to firms “getting back on their feet,” but said action was needed to stop transmission in bars and restaurants.

But he said the rules were “by no means a return to the full lockdown of March.” There was no general order to stay at home, and the prime minister said the measures allowed the continued operation of the “vast majority of the UK economy.”

The prime minister will also give a televised speech to the country later in the day, in a bid to raise awareness of the government’s latest change of stance just a week after it introduced the “rule of six.”

Watch: Michael Gove says people should now work from home if they can

Cabinet minister Michael Gove had told broadcasters earlier on Tuesday there would be a “shift in emphasis” on workplaces, with the public told to work from home where possible. It marks a radical shift in policy, with millions of workers previously encouraged to return to workplaces in a bid to revive ailing town and city centres.

The curfew proposals have knocked leisure stocks this week, and have already sparked a backlash from leading hospitality figures. They mark a stark reversal of the support given to firms and diners through last month’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UKHospitality trade body, warned the curfew could have a “significant economic impact,” hitting as much as 50% of revenues if firms had to shut their doors by 10pm.

Consumer organisation Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has warned communities could “lose their local forever” without more support for firms. CAMRA is calling for the government to “reintroduce the furlough scheme for hospitality venues, extend the business rates holiday for another year, take steps to resolve the rent crisis facing the sector and drastically cut draught beer duty.”

CAMRA chief executive Tom Stainer said: “Pub-goers and publicans alike want to stop the spread of COVID-19, but this curfew is an arbitrary restriction that unfairly targets the hospitality sector and will have a devastating impact on pubs, jobs and local communities.

On Tuesday, the CEO of pub chain JD Wetherspoon (JDW.L) also confirmed that up to 450 jobs are at risk at a number of airports across the UK.

In a statement sent to Yahoo Finance UK, JD Wetherspoon CEO John Hutson said the company had “written to 1,000 people employed in its pubs at six airports (Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Glasgow) to inform them that a possible 400 to 450 positions are at risk of redundancy.”

Earlier this month, the pub chain’s chairman Tim Martin claimed fears of COVID-19 spreading in pubs were overblown, pleading with the government not to impose any further restrictions on the hospitality industry. Martin said 66 members of staff at the pub chain had tested positive for COVID-19 since its 861 sites reopened on 4 July. The pub chain employs more than 41,000 people across the UK.

But with current measures — from social distancing rules to test-and-trace services to sick pay levels — failing to curb a new surge in infection rates, the government had faced mounting pressure for tougher restrictions.

Watch: These are some of the most important moments from the COVID-19 briefing

READ MORE: England’s chief medical officer fuels fears of second UK lockdown

The UK government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty had been sent out to lay the ground for new restrictions in a press conference on Monday.

Vallance said an initial rise in cases among younger people had now spread to all age groups including older people, and had already begun to cause a fresh rise in hospitalisations and deaths. He said an estimated 6,000 new cases were occurring every day, and warned Britain needed “speed” and more “action” to curb cases.

Whitty also warned too little action risked the virus becoming “out of control” and increased deaths. But he acknowledged tighter rules could cause “damage to the economy, which can feed through to unemployment, to poverty, to deprivation.”