The country faces an “unquestionably difficult” winter, Boris Johnson warned after announcing coronavirus restrictions which could last six months.
The Prime Minister set out a package of measures for England, with office staff once again working from home, the wider use of face masks and a 10pm curfew on pubs and restaurants.
He said that the new curbs could continue well beyond Christmas and new year unless there was progress in controlling the spread of the virus – and indicated tougher restrictions could be imposed if they failed.
Mr Johnson used a televised address to the nation to plead with people to follow the new rules, claiming that breaches of previous restrictions by “freedom loving” Britons had helped the virus return.
The new package of measures – and similar or tougher measures elsewhere in the UK – followed scientists’ warnings that the number of cases was doubling every seven days.
Mr Johnson said: “While the vast majority have complied with the rules, there have been too many breaches – too many opportunities for our invisible enemy to slip through undetected.
“The virus has stated to spread again in an exponential way. Infections are up, hospital admissions are climbing.”
Businesses will face £10,000 fines or closure for failing to comply with coronavirus rules, and people risk £200 penalties for failing to wear masks or breaching the “rule of six”.
The military could be used to free up police officers to tackle coronavirus rulebreakers.
Mr Johnson said he was “deeply, spiritually reluctant” to infringe on people’s freedoms, but unless action was taken now there would be a need for harsher measures later “when the deaths have already mounted”.
If people do not follow the new rules we have set out, “we must reserve the right to go further”.
But Mr Johnson finished his televised address with a plea for a “spirit of togetherness”, to get the country though the months ahead.
“If we follow these simple rules together, we will get through this winter together,” he said. “There are unquestionably difficult months to come.
“And the fight against Covid is by no means over. I have no doubt, however, that there are great days ahead.”
Mr Johnson set out measures for England in the House of Commons earlier on Tuesday, but stressed all parts of the UK were united in the need for decisive action to prevent the virus getting out of control.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon went further, imposing a ban on household visits from Wednesday.
And she suggested the tougher measures may mean they do not have to be in place as long as restrictions in England.
Mr Johnson said the UK had reached “a perilous turning point” in the face of a second wave of Covid-19 cases.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK passed 400,000, with a further 4,926 lab-confirmed cases as of 9am on Tuesday.
The Government said a further 37 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Tuesday.
Measures being introduced in England over the coming days include:
– Asking office workers who can, to work from home, although construction workers, retail staff and people performing essential services should continue to attend their workplaces.
– From Thursday, pubs, bars and restaurants will be table-service only and hospitality, leisure and entertainment venues will be subject to a 10pm closing time. Takeaways will also close from 10pm to 5am, although they will be allowed to deliver.
– Face coverings will be required for taxi passengers from Wednesday and for retail staff and hospitality customers, except when sitting down eating or drinking, from Thursday.
– Covid-secure guidelines will become legal obligations for retail, leisure and tourism firms, with businesses facing the risk of fines or closure for failing to comply.
– From Monday, a maximum of 15 people will be allowed to attend wedding ceremonies and receptions.
– From Thursday, the rule of six will be extended to cover indoor team sports, such as five-a-side football games.
– Plans to allow business conferences and crowds at sporting events from October 1 have been shelved.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said families were worried that “the Government doesn’t have a strategy” and “this is a time of national crisis but we need clear leadership”.
Mr Johnson was also challenged about the troubled NHS Test and Trace system, run by Tory peer Baroness Harding, but insisted it was “nonsense” to blame that for the rising number of cases.
“Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or the transmission of the disease,” he said.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said there was a question over whether the measures announced by the Prime Minister would “in themselves be sufficient to reverse the increase in cases as we move into autumn”.
Prof Hunter added: “It is doubtful that the measures currently being enacted will be sufficient to reduce the R value to below one much before this side of Christmas.”
The Government faced renewed calls to do more to support businesses, with the hospitality industry warning that the new restrictions would be a “crushing blow”.