UK at 'critical point' in coronavirus surge with London at risk

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Britain is at a tipping point on Covid-19, Health Minister Matt Hancock said on Sunday, warning that a second national lockdown could be imposed if people don't follow government rules designed to stop the spread of the virus.
With daily cases of the disease at the highest level since May, national restrictions could be reimposed. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Britain is at a "critical point" in the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be told on Monday (Sept 21), as concern mounts that a second lockdown may be needed to stop the renewed spread of the disease.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty plans to sound the alert, saying UK data are heading in the "wrong direction", according to a preview of remarks prepared for a public briefing.

The warning comes amid expectations that local restrictions could soon be extended to London. Mayor Sadiq Khan will recommend tightened rules for the capital on Monday, LBC radio reported.

Mr Whitty's comments underscore the balancing act facing Mr Johnson's government, which is trying to keep infections under control without inflicting further damage on an economy that slumped more than any other developed country during the pandemic.

With daily cases of the disease at the highest level since May, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday that national restrictions could be reimposed unless people comply with rules that include limiting gatherings to six people.


The government reinforced that message by announcing that people in England who refuse an order to self-isolate could be fined £10,000 pounds (S$17,574). A new legal duty requires people to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus, or are traced as a close contact, starting Sept 28.

The government reported 3,899 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday following 4,422 on Saturday, fueling concern that the UK could follow the paths of Spain and France, where hospitalisations are rising again.

Mr Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance will outline potential scenarios as Britain moves into a "very challenging winter", showing how the second wave of infections being experienced in other countries could be replicated in the UK.

The UK test-and-trace system is under strain and local restrictions in place in the north and midlands are expected to be extended to London, where infection rates are the highest in the country after the northwest.

Asked if London office workers could be asked to work from home this week, Mr Hancock told Times Radio: "Well, I wouldn't rule it out."

Mr Hancock once again refused to rule out reports that ministers are considering a two-week national lockdown in October as a virus "circuit breaker", but insisted country-wide measures were a "last line of defence".

Mr Johnson is anxious to avoid a second national lockdown after the first one saw the economy shrink by over a fifth and pushed government debt above £2 trillion for the first time.

The crisis has already cost almost 700,000 employees their jobs and the fear is that unemployment will surge when Treasury wage subsidies for millions of furloughed workers end next month, as currently planned by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.

The opposition Labour Party wants help to continue for the worst-affected sectors, with Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds on Monday due to call for a Job Recovery Scheme as part of a package of measures to help the economy.

Under the proposal, businesses in key sectors that bring back more staff on reduced hours rather than cut jobs would receive government wage support.

Mr Johnson's office on Sunday set fines for breaching self-isolation rules to start at £1,000, in line with the penalty for breaking quarantine after international travel. They could reach £10,000 for repeat offences and "egregious" cases.

Those on lower incomes who face a loss of earnings as a result of going into quarantine will be eligible for a one-time support payment of £500.

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