Boris Johnson said the country ‘cannot be complacent’ amid a rise in reported cases – Shutterstock/Andrew Parsons
Boris Johnson has put the brakes on the easing of lockdown measures as the chief medical officer warned that the country may have reached the “limit” on resuming normal life.
The Prime Minister said he was postponing planned changes which were due to come in on Saturday, stressing that it was right to heed the “warning light on the dashboard” amid concerns over a second coronavirus wave.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said wedding receptions of up to 30 people and the reopening of casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks would not be allowed for at least another two weeks.
The Prime Minister said plans to start indoor performances and allow “close contact” beauty treatments and pilots of larger gatherings in sports venues and conference centres would be postponed.
Prof Whitty added that it might not be possible to ease the lockdown further, adding the country has “probably reached near the limit or the limits” of what can be done to reopen society.
The announcement came a day after restrictions were tightened across large parts of northern England, with people from different households barred from meeting indoors.
Meanwhile, Public Health England (PHE) released new data suggesting another six areas may be heading for local lockdown – Eden, in Cumbria, Sandwell, in the Midlands, Northampton, Peterborough, Rotherham and Wakefield.
Mr Johnson said it was time to “squeeze that brake pedal” on reopening the economy amid rising fears that the UK is on the brink of a second virus wave. He warned that the country “cannot be complacent” amid a rise in reported cases.
“As we see these rises around the world, we can’t fool ourselves that we are exempt,” he said. “We must be willing to react to the first signs of trouble.”
Mr Johnson revealed his latest public health slogan (see video below) as he urged people to stick to the principles of “hands, face, space… and get a test”.
He also voiced concerns about the apparent failings in enforcement of rules and said he had asked the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, “to work with the police and others to ensure the rules which are already in place are properly enforced”.
“That means local authorities acting to close down premises and cancel events which are not following Covid-secure guidance,” he said.
The Government has ordered more police officers onto the streets to enforce the wearing of face coverings, which will become mandatory in indoor settings such as museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship from August 8.
However, advice to encourage employers to bring staff back into work remained unchanged, with Mr Johnson saying companies have gone to “huge lengths to make workplaces safe”.
The decision to row back on the easing of lockdown came after the Prime Minister was shown data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Wednesday night which revealed a rise in Covid-19 infections.
The ONS data was based on just 59 people testing positive out of 116,026 swab tests. The previous week, just 45 people tested positive out of 114,674, which meant the tipping point for a northern lockdown may have rested on only 14 extra positive tests.
The “Covid O” group of senior Cabinet ministers, along with Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, agreed the changes, including tightening restrictions for parts of northern England, on Thursday night.
Muslim leaders criticised the Government for the “shockingly short notice” of the measures, announced the night before the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha.
The Telegraph understands that Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, raised concerns privately that over-emphasising the importance of Eid as a factor behind the decision could inflame racial tensions.
Conservative MPs have expressed worries at the decision to slow the reopening of the economy.
Mark Francois, the chairman of the European Research Group of Conservative MPs, said: “The Government’s got to stop sending contradictory signals. One day we are trying to lift the lockdown, the next we are trying to do the opposite, and the public are now rightfully confused.
“It is taxes that ultimately pay for the NHS and, if we don’t get our economy moving more quickly, we will struggle to do that in future.”
Professor Chris Whitty speaks at Friday’s Downing Street press conference – Andrew Parsons/Shutterstock
Meanwhile, Prof Whitty warned that there would need to be “difficult trade-offs” to allow the further easing of measures.
He said: “If we wish to do more things in the future, we may have to do less of some other things. But we have to be realistic about this. The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong.”
Mr Johnson said getting children back to school on September 1 was a “national priority”, suggesting the trade-offs are likely to result in other measures to ease lockdown being delayed or reversed.
One senior health official close to Prof Whitty said: “Chris feels you can’t have any further easements of lockdown now without pulling back on something else. Clearly, schools are a priority. But as far as he’s concerned it’s not for him to decide what measures you reintroduce to allow that to happen – that one is down to ministers.”
The senior official said the deteriorating situation could see pubs closed in some areas in order to reduce transmission rates and make it safer for schools to reopen.
It comes as advice for the clinically extremely vulnerable in England to stay at home is lifted from Saturday after four months of “shielding”.
More than two million people, including those with respiratory diseases and some being treated for cancer, are being advised that they can go back to work if it is Covid-secure, as well as visit supermarkets, pubs and shops.
Those in the areas of England under partial lockdown are being told they need to stay at home until incidence of Covid-19 reduces. However, those living in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and West Yorkshire – where household mingling has been banned – will be freed from “shielding” restrictions.