LONDON • All social gatherings of more than six people will be banned in England, under new limits announced by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday, as coronavirus cases grow.
Police will have new powers to disperse and fine any group larger than six meeting indoors or outdoors from next Monday. That marks a tightening of the current rules, under which police can break up gatherings of more than 30.
A new public information campaign was also launched to emphasise the importance of hand washing, the use of face coverings and maintaining social distancing.
There will be exceptions for people getting together for work, weddings and funerals as well as for organised sports - but parties in pubs and restaurants, and gatherings in public spaces, will all be hit by the new limits.
"We need to act now to stop the virus spreading," Mr Johnson said in comments before an expected news conference later yesterday. "We are simplifying and strengthening the rules on social contact - making them easier to understand and for the police to enforce."
The move comes amid mounting concern in the government that Covid-19 cases are rising rapidly again, after restrictions were eased and the public was encouraged to return to work and socialise.
It is potentially a blow to Britain's economy, which is already facing its deepest recession in at least 100 years.
The latest limits will affect the hospitality sector in particular, which the government tried to boost with discounts for dining out last month.
The rise in cases in Britain, which has seen around 3,000 confirmed daily infections in recent days, follows similar increases in recent weeks in other European countries.
More than 41,500 people confirmed to have the coronavirus have died in Britain, the worst toll in Europe. The death rate has now fallen to its lowest level since mid-March, but the recent increase in new infections has caused concern.
Ministers hope that acting now to limit social gatherings will slow the spread of the disease as they aim to avoid another national lockdown, such as the one imposed in March that has plunged Britain into its deepest recession on record.
Under the measures, police will first try to encourage groups larger than six people to disperse. If they refuse, they will face a £100 (S$177) fine that will double on each further repeat offence, up to £3,200.
"It is absolutely critical that people now abide by these rules and remember the basics - washing your hands, covering your face, keeping space from others, and getting a test if you have symptoms," Mr Johnson said.
British officials worry that Britain is going to follow Spain and France, where hospitalisations have begun to increase.
A localised approach has taken hold.
On Tuesday, ministers announced tightening of restrictions in the northern English town of Bolton after a "very significant rise" in coronavirus cases.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said contact tracing data had shown this was "partly due to socialising by people in their 20s and 30s".
After identifying a number of pubs as hot spots, he announced curbs on hospitality venues, including reduced opening hours, and a ban on local residents socialising with people outside their household.
One concern for ministers is that the rules are being flouted by young people, who may not be at great risk themselves but who then pass the coronavirus on to their more vulnerable relations.
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE