British government announces tougher coronavirus restrictions for London; indoor gatherings banned

Commuters wearing a face mask or covering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, walk past a London underground tube train at Victoria station, during the evening ‘rus hour’ in central London on September 23, 2020.

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LONDON — The U.K. government has imposed tougher coronavirus restrictions on London in an attempt to curb the rapid spread of the disease.

The U.K.’s capital city will move to a so-called “high” alert level from midnight on Friday, up from the current “medium” alert level.

It means millions of people in Europe’s richest city will soon be unable to meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in public.

The government’s guidelines for a “high” alert level also bans people meeting in a group of more than six outside, including in a garden or other space, and says people should aim to reduce the number of journeys they make where possible.

Spreading ‘exponentially’

Health Minister Matt Hancock delivered the announcement to lawmakers in the House of Commons on Thursday, saying the virus was now spreading “exponentially” in the U.K., and the threat of the pandemic remained “grave and serious.”

“In London, infection rates are on a steep upward path, with the number of cases doubling every 10 days,” Hancock said.

“We know from the first peak that the infection can spread fast and put huge pressures on the NHS so we must act now to prevent the need for tougher measures later on.”

Hancock said the government’s decision to move London to alert level “high” followed talks with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, cross-party council leadership, as well as national and local public health officials.

The majority of England remains at the “medium” alert level, which allows businesses to continue to operate in a Covid-19 secure manner and includes a 10 p.m. curfew for hospitality settings. People are not allowed to meet in groups of six or larger at this alert level, both inside and outside.

The most severe level of restrictions in the U.K.’s new three-tier system, outlined by the government on Monday, is “very high.” The Liverpool region is the only area to be under the toughest measures.

“We’re at a critical moment in our fight against Covid-19 in London. The virus is spreading rapidly in every corner of our city,” Khan said in his opening statement to the London Assembly on Thursday.

“We’ll soon reach an average of 100 cases per 100,000 people, with a significant number of boroughs already over that threshold. Hospital admissions are up. More patients are going into Intensive Care Units. And, sadly, the number of Londoners dying every day is increasing again,” Khan said.

‘Bleak winter’

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday said the government’s three-tier system was the “right way forward,” insisting it could help to “avoid the misery of a national lockdown.”

Johnson, who himself became seriously ill with the coronavirus earlier this year, has been sharply criticized for the government’s response to the pandemic.

LONDON, ENGLAND – Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a virtual briefing.

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Speaking at a televised conference alongside Johnson on Monday, the government’s top medic, Professor Chris Whitty, said restrictions for areas identified as being at “very high” risk would not be enough to control the outbreak.

Whitty urged local authorities to use their powers to impose additional measures.

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour party, has since called for a temporary national lockdown of two or three weeks, a so-called “circuit breaker,” in an effort to bring the rising rate of the coronavirus under control.

Starmer said a change of approach was necessary in order to avoid a “bleak winter.”

His comments came after documents released on Monday showed that the government’s own scientific advisors, a group known as Sage, had called for such action three weeks ago.

To date, the U.K. has recorded more than 657,000 cases of Covid-19, with 43,245 related deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

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