Yesterday the Government announced that social gatherings – both indoors and outdoors – of more than six people will be illegal in England from Monday (with fines of £100 upwards for anyone breaking the rules).
In a press conference today, Boris Johnson expanded on the rationale for the move; there has been a steep rise in cases, with 8,396 reported since Sunday and 2,460 reported on Tuesday alone. Cases are increasing particularly among those aged 17 to 29.
For many, the new measure seems like a step backwards. With the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, and the push to get employees back to work, it appeared that reopening the economy was the main direction the UK was heading in.
Dare I say there’d been some optimism the nation was winning the fight against Covid-19, especially as hospitalisations and deaths have dramatically gone down.
Some will see the Government’s latest move as disproportionate, given that no vaccine is coming any time soon, and that the NHS’s capacity has never been overstretched.
There will also be questions about whether the rises in cases are as problematic as often made out, as they do not always correlate with more serious outcomes (deaths and hospitalisations).
One thing is for certain, however, which is that the Government cannot continue to yo-yo between opening and closing the economy. Worryingly, it has been suggested that a 10pm curfew for bars could be introduced across Britain to reduce cases. But we’re at the point where measures (such as the six-person limit) are creating widespread economic uncertainty.
As I wrote for ConservativeHome yesterday, the Government urgently needs to get a move on with its test and trace programme; its ultimate exit strategy. At PMQs today, Keir Starmer called the system “frankly ridiculous”, and while his words might have been hyperbolic, there will be continuous questions about why Northern Ireland, Germany and others have been able to release a contact tracing app as England’s is still going through trials.
Of course, creating this technology is an enormous logistical task, and it’s clear that Dido Harding, who’s heading up the operation, would rather get it right (regardless of whether it takes longer than others to implement). The Government has also invested £500 million into improving testing around the UK, and has made important moves, such as enrolling local council teams to record contacts. Johnson has even introduced £1,000 fines for pubs from Monday if they do not adequately monitor contacts; though harsh, it takes the Government’s test and trace efforts further.
But with the public appetite for more measures waning, and winter approaching, it’s imperative for the Government to speed its process up – lest it gives weight to Starmer’s words.