LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people on Tuesday to work from home where possible and ordered bars and restaurants to close early to tackle a fast-spreading second wave of COVID-19 with new restrictions lasting probably six months.
After scientific warnings that deaths could soar without urgent action, Johnson stopped short of another full lockdown as he did in March, but warned that further measures could come if the disease was not suppressed.
“We reserve the right to deploy greater firepower, with significantly greater restrictions,” he told parliament following emergency meetings with ministers and leaders of the United Kingdom’s devolved governments.
Just weeks after urging people to start returning to workplaces, Johnson advised office workers to stay at home if they could. He ordered all pubs, bars, restaurants and other hospitality sites to close at 10 p.m. from Thursday with only table service allowed.
“I am sorry this will hurt many businesses just getting back on their feet,” he said.
It was unclear if the measures would be enough to tackle Britain’s second wave, which government scientists warned could reach 50,000 new cases per day by mid-October, but they meant more pain for the world’s fifth largest economy.
Masks will be required in more settings, there will be tougher enforcement of rules, and the military could be brought in to help free up the police, Johnson said.
Schools and universities are to stay open.
Businesses breaking COVID laws face penalties of up to 10,000 pounds ($13,000) or even closure, while individuals may be fined 200 pounds for not wearing a mask when required.
Johnson said it was frustrating for the law-abiding majority to see a few “brazenly defying the rules”.
Asked in parliament why Britain’s figures were worse than Germany and Italy, Johnson said: “There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world and that is our country is a freedom-loving country … It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary.”
He was to address the nation at 1900 GMT.
The United Kingdom already has the biggest official COVID-19 death toll in Europe – 41,788 – while it is borrowing record amounts to pump emergency money through the damaged economy.
Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey warned that the “very unfortunate” escalation of COVID-19 cases threatened the economic outlook and said the central bank was looking hard at how it could support the economy further.
Pub operator JD Wetherspoon said it could cut 400-450 jobs at sites at six airports, including London’s Heathrow and Gatwick, because of the large drop in passengers.
Opposition leader Keir Starmer urged the government not to end a furlough scheme at the end of October, accusing it of losing control of the coronavirus crisis.
Scotland will introduce additional nationwide restrictions on household gatherings that go further than Johnson’s new rules, its First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.
(For an interactive graphic tracking global spread, open in a separate browser: here)
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, David Milliken, Andy Bruce, Estelle Shirbon, Sarah Young; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael Holden; Editing by Stephen Addison and Andrew Cawthorne