Less than two months ago, Boris Johnson unveiled a plan to set the country on a path to a “more significant return to normality” by Christmas. But now, with fears of a difficult few months ahead amid rising Covid-19 cases, Downing Street is clamping down on social interactions to avoid a second national lockdown.
On Monday, new measures come into force in England in a bid to control the spread of the virus. So, just what are the new rules and how will they be enforced?
What will be illegal under the new rules?
From Monday, gatherings of more than six people inside or outside in England will be illegal, with some exemptions. Under present rules for England, guidelines limit most gatherings to six people, or no more than two households or support bubbles, but the law has allowed for a higher limit of 30 people. “You must not meet socially in groups of more than six and if you do, you will be breaking the law,” Johnson told a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, dubbing it “the rule of six”.
What does this mean if a family of five wants to visit two grandparents at the same time?
In short, doing so would be illegal as this would mean seven people were gathering. Asked about the issue on Wednesday, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, told BBC Breakfast: “I’m afraid for a family of five or six, this will bring in some significant restrictions, I get that and we don’t do this lightly.” He added: “I have three children, we have a family of five, and so we’ll be able to see one other person at a time as a whole family.”
Are there exemptions?
Yes, quite a few. For instance, if a family who live together – or a support bubble – is already larger than six they will not be in breach of the law by being together but they will not be able to see anyone else as a group. Places of worship, gyms, restaurants and hospitality venues can still hold more than six people in total. But within those venues, Johnson highlighted, there must not be individual groups larger than six and groups must not mix socially with others. Education and workplaces are also exempt. Covid-secure weddings and funerals can still take place with up to 30 people, as well as organised team sports.
Why is the government doing this now?
The number of Covid-19 cases are rising fast, with the R number – the average number of people one person infects – above 1 although it is not clear what the exact figure is. There have been nearly 8,500 positive Covid-19 tests recorded in England in three days. There is particular concern in government over the growth in infections among young people. The weekly rate of cases per 100,000 people across the population is 19.7 but it is significantly higher among younger people. For 17 to 18-year-olds it is 48.1, for 19 to 21-year-olds it is 54.5 and across the age range of 20 to 29 it is 41.6. The rates for younger children and older people remain broadly flat.
What about those who break the new rules?
The new measures are designed to simplify the rules to help police enforcement, with rule-breakers facing a £100 for the first offence. Fines will double on each further offence, up to £3,200. Covid-secure marshals will be introduced to boost local authority enforcement.
How long will this last?
The new rules will be in place for the “foreseeable future”, Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, although he said he hoped the situation could be turned around before Christmas. Later, Johnson clarified that the measures would be kept under review and only continue for as long as necessary. “These measures are not another national lockdown,” he said, adding: “The whole point of them is to avoid a second national lockdown.”
What else is the government doing?
The government is making it a legal requirement for pubs and restaurants to take customers’ details and keep them for 21 days for the NHS test-and-trace programme, which has until now been voluntary. Businesses who fail to do so will face fines.
The passenger locator form, designed to aid tracing efforts, which arrivals are required to fill out before they enter the country, is being simplified, Johnson said. He also said there would be measures to ensure these were completed and checked before departure. It comes after the Guardian revealed that Border Force officials only aim to check less than a third of arrivals for passenger locator forms. Johnson said Border Force would be stepping up enforcement to ensure arrivals were complying with quarantine rules.
The prime minister also indicated there could be further restrictions on the opening hours of venues in some areas, after a similar move this week in Bolton – which is suffering the highest Covid rates in the country – where pubs and restaurants have to shut from 10pm to 5am. “We will also restrict the opening hours of premises, initially in some local areas,” Johnson said, without specifying where this could take place.
Will plans to allow fans back into sports stadiums and other venues still go ahead?
Johnson said the plans would be reviewed. He said: “At the present time, I’m afraid we must also revise plans to pilot larger audiences in venues later this month and review our intention to return audiences to stadiums and conference centres from the 1st of October. That doesn’t mean we’re going to scrap the programme entirely, we just have to review it and abridge it.”