Boris Johnson heralded a bleak economic winter on Tuesday as he announced that sweeping measures to control coronavirus in England could be in place for six months, with potentially worse to come.
Mr Johnson abandoned attempts to persuade workers to return to the office, a reversal of a government policy that came in to effect only last month. He also confirmed plans to shut pubs and restaurants at 10pm and scrapped opening up sporting events to crowds from October 1.
Although Mr Johnson stopped short of more draconian measures — such as banning the visiting of other households indoors, closing the hospitality sector or introducing a two-week “circuit break” national lockdown — the new restrictions will have a profound impact on many businesses in England.
To show he meant business, Mr Johnson announced increased £200 fines for people failing to wear a mask as required and said the armed forces would help the police enforce the rules.
“We have reached a perilous turning point,” Mr Johnson told the House of Commons. “This is the moment when we must act.” He wanted to shield the economy from the risk of “significantly greater” restrictions later on, adopting the principle of “a stitch in time saves nine”.
He said the government reserved the right to use “further firepower” if the R number, the number of people that each infected person in turn infects, failed to fall below 1. “The whole objective is to avoid a second national lockdown,” he added.
Mr Johnson’s previously optimistic outlook on Covid-19 has been replaced by a more sombre tone: earlier this month he had said he hoped the country would be able to enjoy a “normal” Christmas.
In a pre-recorded broadcast message to the nation, Mr Johnson on Tuesday evening said the government could impose tighter restrictions if necessary in the “difficult months” ahead.
The prime minister promised “great days” were ahead but called on the general public to “summon the discipline, and the resolve, and the spirit of togetherness that will carry us through”.
He warned that the fight against Covid-19 — the biggest crisis of his lifetime — was by no means over, saying: “If people don’t follow the rules we have set out, then we must reserve the right to go further.”
Nearly a million people had died in less than a year as the pandemic caused havoc to economies around the world, he said. The virus was starting to spread in an “exponential” way again and was just as deadly as it had been in the spring.
“Never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behaviour. If we follow these simple rules together, we will get through this winter together,” he said.
“I am deeply, spiritually reluctant to make any of these impositions, or infringe anyone’s freedom, but unless we take action the risk is that we will have to go for tougher measures later, when the deaths have already mounted and we have a huge caseload of infection such as we had in the spring.”
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, on Tuesday announced tougher restrictions, including a ban on visiting other households indoors. UK government officials admitted that move could soon follow in England if the virus continued to spread.
Mr Johnson’s decision to step back from even tougher measures came as some relief to Conservative MPs, who have become increasingly critical of what Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 committee, has called “government by diktat”.
But companies were scrambling to change their personnel policies after being encouraged for weeks to bring staff back into offices. “We are asking office workers who can work from home to do so,” Mr Johnson said. A plan to bring 80 per cent of civil servants back to their offices was abandoned.
While Mr Johnson’s government last month offered subsidies to encourage people to “eat out”, the hospitality sector now faces new restrictions. Trade body UKHospitality has warned that 900,000 jobs could be lost from the sector without further financial support.
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI business group, said the six-month timetable “will come as a shock” to business, adding there was “no avoiding the crushing blow new measures bring for thousands of firms”.
In England mandatory face coverings will be extended to include people working in retail and hospitality and to passengers travelling in taxis. Weddings and wedding receptions will be limited to 15 people from Monday. Indoor team sports of more than six people will be banned.
More Covid-19 guidance to business, such as requiring hospitality venues to provide table service only, will be put into law to strengthen enforcement powers. “Businesses could be closed or fined if they break the rules,” Mr Johnson said.
Downing Street said the armed forces would not be “handing out fines” but could “backfill” for the police using “tried and tested mechanisms” to free frontline officers to enforce the rules.
Takeaways will have to close at 10pm, but deliveries can continue after that time. Plans to open sports stadiums to fans from October 1 have been cancelled, along with proposals to reopen conference venues.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and many Tory MPs have led calls for Mr Johnson to move cautiously, including warning the prime minister not to close the hospitality sector altogether.
The rapid spread of the virus is forcing Mr Johnson to introduce new restrictions quicker than he expected after Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical adviser, on Monday warned of “a very challenging winter”.
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