New rules designed to curb a resurgence of coronavirus by making it illegal for groups of more than six to meet in England will be in place for the “foreseeable future”, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said, although he hopes the situation can be turned around before Christmas.
In a strengthening of measures intended to help police enforcement, from Monday gatherings of more than half a dozen people indoors or outside will be banned, with a few exemptions including in schools, workplaces and for life events such weddings or funerals.
Under present rules for England, guidelines limit most gatherings to six people, or no more than two households or household bubbles, but the law has allowed for a higher limit of 30 people.
The government is taking action after a sudden increase in infections, with nearly 8,500 positive Covid-19 tests recorded in England in three days. Anyone breaking the rule faces a £100 fine for the first offence, up to £3,200 for those who repeatedly flout the measures.
The UK government continues to come under pressure over Covid-19 testing capacity, with Hancock defending its handling of the situation. On Wednesday, he suggested a quarter of those people who had been coming forward for tests were not eligible as they did not have symptoms.
Asked whether the six-person rules could still be in place at Christmas, Hancock told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s absolutely there for the foreseeable future. I really hope that we can turn this around before Christmas.”
Pressed on whether people should be prepared for the new rules to still be in place at Christmas, Hancock replied: “I think that, in a pandemic, Christmas is a long way off.
“Three months is a long time in a pandemic and I very much hope that this stronger rule, together with the local action that we’ve taken in places like Bolton … I very much hope therefore this can work to do that by Christmas.”
Hancock also revealed the government was going to make it compulsory for pubs and restaurants to take customers’ details for the test-and-trace programme, which has until now been voluntary.
He told Today: “We’re also going to enforce more strictly the rules around hospitality, including the fact 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 … but some have just chosen not to, so we’re going to make that compulsory as well.”
On Tuesday, the government moved immediately to impose a series of tougher measures in Bolton to tackle a surge of Covid-19 cases, with restaurants and pubs being restricted to takeaways, as well as late-night limits on opening hours for the venues. The government is reportedly considering local curfews in areas such as Bradford, which has also endured a rise in cases in a move that would emulate action in Belgium.
In a separate interview on Wednesday with Sky News, Hancock defended the test-and-trace system. There has been mounting criticism after it emerged some people had been asked to travel long distances to get checked for the virus. However, Hancock said problems have been caused by people without symptoms requesting tests. Pressed on whether the system was failing, Hancock said: “I completely reject … that accusation, in fact quite the contrary.”
He said the country had the biggest testing system per head of the population of all the major countries in Europe, adding: “However, in the last couple of weeks we have seen an increase in demand, including an increase in demand from people who are not eligible for tests, people who don’t have symptoms.
“About 25% of people who are coming forward [for tests] don’t have symptoms and aren’t eligible,” he said.