British health leaders say after months of keeping the coronavirus in check, new COVID-19 cases are now soaring again in an exponential way.
Britain has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe, with a total close to 42,000. New infections have been accelerating in recent weeks, leading scientists to say they could hit 50,000 per day by mid-October if left unchecked.
4,926 lab-confirmed cases were confirmed on Tuesday. This is a figure comparable to the daily infection rates recorded during the peak of the first wave in April.
In a televised speech to the nation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told citizens on Tuesday to work from home if possible and ordered restaurants and bars to close early, in an effort to slow the fast-spreading second wave of COVID-19.
He blames COVID-19 rule breakers for the second wave of infections as he warned of the potential for a second lockdown.
“For months, with those disciplines of social distancing, we’ve kept that virus at bay,” Johnson said.
“But we have to acknowledge that this is a great and freedom-loving country. While the vast majority have complied with the rules, there have been too many breaches, too many opportunities, for our invisible enemy to slip through undetected.”
The prime minister detailed a string of new restrictions in England, among them, include:
- 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 10 pm, not merely ceasing trading as some in the industry had hoped, and offer table service only.
Johnson warned that if citizens didn’t follow the new rules that the government, “must reserve the right to go further”.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner reacted to Johnson’s speech by labeling his handling of the pandemic a “disaster”.
She wrote on Twitter: “Unless you acknowledge an issue you cannot sort that issue out, why keep persisting with this nonsense?”
A YouGov poll found that 78% of people supported the measures already announced, although 45% said Johnson should have gone further while 32% said he had got the restrictions about right.
Businesses reacted with widespread angst over what the new restrictions would mean, especially for pubs, restaurants and other hospitality firms. The 10 p.m. closing time announced by Johnson was criticized as ineffective in terms of reducing transmission, but damaging to business.
Professor John Edmunds of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who is on the government’s scientific advisory team, told BBC radio: “Overall, I don’t think the measures have gone anywhere near far enough. In fact, I don’t even think the measures in Scotland have gone far enough.”
Edmunds said he believed very stringent measures would come into force across the United Kingdom at some point “but it will be too late again”.
The prime minister says the new 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.”
Story compiled with assistance from BBC Radio, Reuters and wire reports.