Boris Johnson on Friday warned that the UK was heading into a second wave of coronavirus, as he put the country on notice that major new restrictions may be necessary to tackle the rising number of infections.
The prime minister and chancellor Rishi Sunak have agreed that a second national lockdown would be a disaster for the economy, and are determined to keep businesses and schools open.
But ministers are considering so-called circuit-breaker measures across England — involving restrictions on the hospitality industry — if the latest rule banning gatherings of more than six people fails to control the virus.
The devolved governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff on Friday called for more national-level co-ordination, and the mayor of London said additional measures to counter the spread of coronavirus in the UK capital looked “increasingly likely”.
A report released on Friday by government scientists estimated that new Covid-19 infections were growing by between 2 per cent and 7 per cent each day across the UK. It found that R — the average number of new cases generated by an infected person — was between 1.1 and 1.4.
The government announced new local lockdowns across Merseyside and much of Lancashire, as well as parts of the Midlands and West Yorkshire, affecting 3.3m people.
“I don’t think anybody wants to go into a second [national] lockdown,” Mr Johnson told Sky News.
“But clearly when you look at what is happening you have to wonder whether we need to go further than the rule of six we brought in on Monday, so we will be looking at the local lockdowns, looking at what we can do to intensify things there to help bring the rate of infections down — but also looking at other measures as well.”
The prime minister added the UK was now entering into a second wave of coronavirus. “We see it in France, we see it in Spain . . . it’s been absolutely — I’m afraid — inevitable that we would see it in this country,” he said.
Labour leader Keir Starmer called on Mr Johnson to chair an urgent meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee, saying: “This is the time for swift, decisive national action. We cannot afford to be too slow.”
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon demanded a unified approach across the UK following past differences over how best to tackle Covid-19.
“I think we need to consider what we need to do to interrupt this and break it,” she said. “I do want to have four-nation discussions around this.”
Her concerns were echoed by Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford, who said he had “one brief phone call” with Mr Johnson since the end of May.
“All of these issues need to be discussed at a UK level by the four governments, working together, but as far too often in this crisis, that opportunity has not been there,” he added.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan on Friday evening said it was increasingly likely that additional measures would soon be needed in the capital to tackle the accelerating speed at which Covid-19 was now spreading there.
“I am of the firm view that we should not wait, as happened six months ago, for this virus to again spiral out of control before taking action,” he said. “The best thing for both public health and the economy is new restrictions imposed early, rather than a full lockdown when it’s too late — but the government must urgently ensure there is a fully functioning testing system.”
The Labour politician said they would be considering some of the measures that have been imposed in other parts of the UK.
Under the latest local lockdowns in England, households will be prohibited from meeting indoors in Merseyside, Lancashire excluding Blackpool, and parts of the Midlands and West Yorkshire from Tuesday.
The restrictions in the north-west include an order for hospitality businesses such as pubs and restaurants to close at 10pm.
It means that more than 13m people, a fifth of the UK population, will be living under local lockdowns, although the restrictions vary from place to place.
On Friday, 4,322 new coronavirus cases were reported in the UK, bringing the total to 385,936.
In England, the R number was estimated by government scientists to be between 1.2 and 1.4, while the rate of new infections was highest in the Midlands, the north-east and the north-west.
Health secretary Matt Hancock warned that the country was facing a surge in coronavirus cases and hospital admissions, but argued that since the vast majority of new transmission was occurring within social settings rather than in schools and workplaces, these did not need to be closed.
But he refused to rule out a second national lockdown. The Financial Times reported on Thursday that leading members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-m) had proposed a two-week national lockdown to coincide with the October school half-term.
Mr Hancock told the BBC: “A national lockdown is the last line of defence and we want to use local action, and we want people to follow the rule of six, in order to avoid it.”
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