Boris Johnson today ordered a major crackdown led by police, councils and health officials to stop continuing breaches of social-distancing guidance in an attempt to prevent a second wave of Covid-19 and save lives.
Venues that are linked with local outbreaks will be closed, restaurants and pubs fined if they fail to comply with contact tracing, and unlawful parties staged by young people broken up by police officers who will fine participants.
Local curfews, mirroring a new 10pm to 5am closure of venues in Bolton, are being held in reserve for other towns where local transmission rates are high, although these are not expected to be the focus of the announcements.
Today’s key measure — as revealed in yesterday’s Evening Standard — is a new limit of six people at social gatherings from Monday.
The legal cap replaces confusing guidance and means police will have the power to close down big parties, such as gatherings at student houses when the new university term begins.
As Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned that lives are at stake, the Prime Minister told colleagues there will be a nationwide switch from voluntary coronavirus guidance to firm enforcement of the rules by the authorities.
The crackdown was due to be announced at a press conference at No 10, underlining the gravity of the fears about a second wave this autumn.
Mr Hancock told Sky News that people will die if nothing is done. “As you can see in other countries, if you have a rise in the number of cases and you don’t act then that inexorably leads to more people in hospital and more people dying of coronavirus,” he said.
Mr Hancock disclosed it will also become compulsory for pubs and restaurants to take customers’ details for the test and trace programme, something that was not enforced until now.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’re also going to enforce more strictly the rules around hospitality, including for instance you need to give your contact details when you go to hospitality, which has so far been voluntary.
“Large swathes of the hospitality industry have followed it. Some have chosen not to, so we’re going to make that compulsory as well.”
A senior government source told the Standard that local authorities would have the PM’s full support to get tough. “By acting quickly, we are trying to prevent what is happening in Spain and France. Belgium moved quickly and got on top of its second spike. These steps will allow us to keep schools open and avoid a second lockdown of the economy.”
Councils and local health teams will identify venues that are linked with infections using data from test and trace, and use deploy powers to close them down.
Despite the new rules, the four-day St Leger Festival horse racing meet at Doncaster was due to go ahead this afternoon, with some 3,500 spectators due to flock to the racecourse, despite the local mayor warning it should be called off.
Asked about the apparent contradiction, Mr Hancock said: “The Prime Minister is going to set out more details of the consequences of the new rule for six people gathering later today. And we’ll set out what that means for some of these events that we were planning to do.”
Doncaster’s elected Labour mayor Ros Jones said in a statement: “My personal opinion remains that the festival is a major risk for the borough that I would rather not see happen.”
Asked to rule out a second lockdown, Mr Hancock admitted: “I wouldn’t make a vow like that. You wouldn’t expect me to — I am the Health Secretary in the middle of a pandemic where we are trying to keep the country safe.”
Freshers’ week at universities will be affected by the clampdown, said Mr Hancock. “Otherwise we know the spread of the disease is going to keep going up and up,” he added.
“We know that that leads to more people in hospital and more people dying.”
Churches will not be affected by the new six-person rule.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby tweeted: “After contact with Government we hear that there is no change to guidance on places of worship.”
Mr Hancock said the ban on gatherings of more than six people will be in place for the “foreseeable future”.
The Health Secretary added on Today: “I really hope we can turn this round before Christmas. Three months is a long time in a pandemic and I very much hope this strong rule, together with the local action we’ve taken in places like Bolton … I very hope much therefore this can work to do that by Christmas.”