Johnson warns of more curbs as Britain’s virus cases surge

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(Sept 18): Boris Johnson said he’s considering whether to “go further” with national restrictions after a surge in coronavirus infections in the U.K. raised the specter of another economy-sapping lockdown.

“We want to try and keep all parts of the economy open as far as we possibly can -- I don’t think anybody wants to go into a second lockdown,” the prime minister told reporters on Friday. “But clearly, when you look at what is happening, you have got to wonder whether we need to go further.”

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan warned further restrictions will probably be needed “soon” in the British capital, where infection rates are accelerating. Khan said measures should be imposed early to avoid a full lockdown.

Estimates from the Office for National Statistics published Friday suggested there were 6,000 new infections a day in the community in England during the week ending Sept. 10 -- up from 3,200 in the previous seven days. For the U.K., the so-called R rate, or how many people each new Covid-19 case infects, is as high as 1.4, the government said, indicating the spread of the virus is accelerating.

Johnson declined to rule out a short lockdown, saying only he wanted to avoid “a second national lockdown of the kind we had in March, April,” which saw shops closed and people confined to their homes.

“We will be looking at the local lockdowns we have got in large parts of the country now, looking at what we can do to intensify things that help bring the rate of infection down there, but also looking at other measures as well,” he said.

Cases surge

With official daily cases running at levels last seen in May, the U.K.’s test and trace system is under strain and millions of people across the country have been placed under local restrictions to limit the spread of the disease. The resurgence poses a major dilemma for Johnson’s government, which is trying to keep the transmission rate down while stimulating an economy that slumped more than any other major developed country during the pandemic.

When asked about reports that ministers are considering a two-week national lockdown in October as a virus “circuit-breaker,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told BBC radio he’d learned “not ever to rule anything out” but added that a lockdown “is the last line of defense.”

Johnson’s spokesman Jamie Davies twice said the government is seeking to avoid “any extended lockdown,” when asked about the reports, leaving open the possibility of a shorter, time-limited intervention.

Residents in parts of northwest England, the Midlands and West Yorkshire face a raft of new measures from Tuesday, including a ban on socializing with other people outside their own households, the Department of Health said.

‘Exponential growth’

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned of “exponential growth” in coronavirus cases, and called for a meeting of the U.K. government’s Cobra emergency committee to enable a “joined-up approach.”

“I’m giving people advance notice that we are very likely to see some hard and difficult decisions in the coming days,” Sturgeon told reporters in Edinburgh on Friday. “If we want to avoid another full-scale lockdown, doing nothing is not an option.”

At a Parliamentary hearing this week, Johnson said a second national lockdown would be “disastrous” for the U.K.’s finances, and his government is sticking to its policy of encouraging workers back to what it describes as “Covid-secure” offices. Ministers have also staked considerable political capital on keeping children in school.

Curfews

Khan urged Londoners to stick to the “rule of six” to avoid more stringent measures -- such as curfews -- becoming necessary. According to the ONS, the number of people with Covid in the capital is estimated to be around 17,000, or 0.2% of the population, second only to northwest England.

“The number of cases in London are going up; the infection rate is going up, and hospital admissions are going up,” Khan told LBC radio on Friday. But he emphasized the city is not yet at the point of needing to follow the restrictions imposed in other parts of England. “We’re keen to do our bit to avoid that happening,” he said.

The fresh local restrictions announced on Friday for northwest England follow similar measures imposed on large areas of the northeast this week. The health secretary said local leaders had asked for the curbs to be imposed.

‘Cavalry’

“The strategy is to keep the virus down as much as is possible, whilst protecting education and the economy and doing everything we possibly can for the cavalry that’s on the horizon,” Hancock said, referring to efforts to develop Covid-19 vaccines, new testing technologies and treatments.

Much is riding on the government’s test-and-trace program, which officials regard as vital to keep infection rates down and to give people confidence to return to work. But the system is failing to meet key targets, including on the rapid turnaround of tests and the number of people deemed at risk of contracting the virus who are contacted.