Boris Johnson Postpones Plans to Ease Lockdown Restrictions in England

Peter Russell

July 31, 2020

Boris Johnson said new data suggesting a rise in COVID-19 cases in England was a "warning light on the dashboard" that led to the decision to restrict people from socialising in parts of Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, and East Lancashire.

The ban prohibits households mixing with other households (except for people in their support bubbles) in private homes and gardens.

The Prime Minster also announced that a planned further easing of lockdown restrictions in England would be postponed by at least a fortnight, and that face coverings would become mandatory in more public indoor settings, such as cinemas, museums, and places of worship.

As the Prime Minister was speaking in Downing Street this afternoon, new evidence was published to suggest that the reproduction rate (R) of SARS-CoV-2 had risen and may have breached a critical level. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) announced it "does not have confidence that R is currently below 1 in England".

Earlier, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced there was some evidence that the incidence of new infections had increased in recent weeks.

Mr Johnson said that the Government could not afford to ignore the evidence.

He told a news conference: "We cannot be complacent, and I won't stand by and allow this virus to threaten to cause more pain and more heartache in our country. So that's why last night the Health Secretary announced new restrictions on household contact in the northwest."

Last night the Department of Health and Social Care said it had taken that decision in response to fresh data from NHS Test and Trace suggesting this form of socialising had been key to rising infection rates in parts of northern England.

Announcing the move, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "The spread is largely due to households meeting and not abiding to social distancing."

Although the Government had decided to impose restrictions "with a heavy heart", he insisted that "we can see increasing rates of coronavirus across Europe and are determined to do whatever is necessary to keep people safe".

New Restrictions by Area

The areas in the north of England where the new restrictions apply are:

  • Greater Manchester

  • Pendle

  • Hyndburn

  • Burnley

  • Rossendale

  • Blackburn with Darwen

  • Bradford

  • Calderdale

  • Kirklees

New regulations would give local authorities and the police powers to enforce the restrictions, the Government said.

Restrictions currently in place in Blackburn, announced last Friday, which saw indoor swimming pools, indoor fitness and dance studios, indoor gyms and sports facilities remaining closed, would continue, the Department of Health and Social Care said.

The rules on socialising with other households will also apply to Leicester. However, other restrictions there, and in neighbouring Oadby and Wigston, that were imposed at the end of June will be lifted on August 3. The situation in Leicester will be reviewed by August 13.

Ministers acknowledged that the announcement would "come as a blow" to people preparing to celebrate Eid Al Adha this weekend with friends and family.

Mosques would be allowed to remain open, but with social distancing restrictions that may mean reductions in the number of worshippers.

Households will still be allowed to go to bars, pubs, and restaurants, but two households should not go to hospitality venues together, the guidance states.

Mr Hancock said there would be no restrictions on travel, "so people can still go on holiday from the area affected" and "people can still go to work".

The Scottish Government reacted to the latest rules by advising against travel to affected areas in the North West of England.

Latest Data

Today's data from SAGE estimates that the R number for the whole of the UK is between 0.8 and 0.9. It said that represented a growth rate in the range of -1% to -4%.

For just England, the overall R rate was estimated to be in the range of 0.8 to 1.0. However, the scientists on the committee said that as the transmission rate figures were several weeks old, they could not be confident that the R rate was currently below 1.0.

The Government Office for Science said that modelling that used testing data had suggested higher values for R in England. "We would expect to see this change in transmission reflected in the R and growth rate published over the next few weeks," it said.

Data provided by ONS today showed evidence to suggest a slight increase in the number of people in England testing positive for COVID-19 on a nose and throat swab in recent weeks.

It estimated that between 20 and 26 July the R rate across England was around 0.78, equating to around 4200 new cases per day (95% confidence level: 2200 to 8100).

However, the ONS said it could not say for certain whether COVID-19 infection rates differed by region in England, nor whether infection rates had increased in different regions over the past 6 weeks.

Lockdown Easing 'Taken to the Limit': Chief Medical Adviser

Prof Chris Whitty, the Government's chief medical adviser, who appeared at today's Downing Street news conference, was asked what impact a rising number of cases of the coronavirus would have on lifting lockdown restrictions.

He said: "The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong; and what we're seeing is that we are at the outer edge of what we can do, and therefore choices will need to be made."

He continued: "If people continue to increase the number of people they meet, increase the social interactions they have, then the virus rate will go up, absolutely, inevitably.

"So, this is really within our hands as a society as to how we're going to respond to this.

"We either say we've actually, probably, taken it to the limit, we've got to stop now, we may have to pull back a bit in fact to keep this under control, or we do not. And if we do pull back, then we should be able to hold the line; and if we do not pull back, and we start having further interactions, then we can expect to see an increase in cases with all the consequences that go with that."

Prof Whitty said he supported the Government's intention to ensure children went back to school after the summer, describing that aspect of easing lockdown measures as "an absolute priority".

Reaction to New Restrictions in England

Commenting on the new restrictions for socialising in North West England, Keith Neal, emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said "Transmission within households has been recognised as one of the main routes of transmission from the earliest days of the pandemic" and was "almost certainly due to the inability to keep distances within a house and the length of exposure time".

He told the Science Media Centre: "These targeted measures appear to be a result of local investigations of where transmission is thought to be most commonly occurring. This is the most sensible way to control any outbreak: obtain as much information about spread and apply appropriate control measures."

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said: “Meeting indoors, particularly within the house of a friend or relative, increases the risks of transmission. 

"There will be prolonged close contact, potentially over several hours.  Rooms in households will be smaller and maybe less well ventilated than in other larger indoors environments such as restaurants.  There may be increased touching of shared objects, such as cutlery, and those meeting may well hug and kiss. 

"All of these activities individually pose a small risk, but if enough low-risk activities take place, then the overall risk of transmission of COVID-19 increases."

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