The British government has defended its new, stricter coronavirus measures against criticism that they do not got far enough, saying it is trying to balance supporting the economy while protecting health.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told citizens on Tuesday to work from home if possible and ordered restaurants and bars to close early, in an effort to slow a fast-spreading second wave of COVID-19, saying restrictions would likely last six months.
Britain has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe, with a total close to 42,000. New infections have been accelerating in recent weeks, leading scientists to say they could hit 50,000 per day by mid-October if left unchecked.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab gave a round of interviews on Wednesday – six months to the day since the government first imposed a national lockdown on March 23 – seeking to persuade the public to abide by the new rules to avoid a second lockdown.
“What we don’t want is to have to take even more severe measures as we go through Christmas,” Raab said. “And that’s why we need to take the proportional, targeted measures we’re taking now.”
Asked if the new measures were part of a Swedish-style plan to live with the virus rather than try to get rid of it, Raab rejected that suggestion.
But a decision by Scotland’s semi-autonomous government to take more stringent measures, such as banning any socialising between households, cast doubt over whether the steps taken in more populous England would be sufficient.
“I’ve made a judgment that we are again at a tipping point with COVID and I’m looking at data that alarms me, frankly,” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on ITV.
She said her scientific advisers had told her the package announced by Johnson would be insufficient to bring down the rate of transmission.
In England, people can still socialise with members of other households in groups of up to six people.
The Times newspaper reported that Chris Whitty, the national government’s chief medical adviser, was privately saying further restrictions in England were inevitable to bring the epidemic under control.
On the business side, there was widespread angst over what the new restrictions would mean, especially for pubs, restaurants and other hospitality firms.
The 10pm closing time announced by Johnson was criticised as ineffective in terms of reducing transmission, but damaging to business.
Raab rejected this, saying the government’s scientific advice was that the package of measures was appropriate to “bear down” on the virus.
Prof John Edmunds of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who is on the government’s scientific advisory team, told BBC radio: “Overall, I don’t think the measures have gone anywhere near far enough. In fact, I don’t even think the measures in Scotland have gone far enough.”
He said he believed very stringent measures would come into force across the UK at some point “but it will be too late again”.