U.K.’s Boris Johnson to order pubs and restaurants to close early

By Stephen Castle

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain plans to impose new restrictions on nightlife, including the forced early closure of pubs and restaurants in England, as he ramps up the country’s efforts to curb a rising tide of coronavirus infections.

Pubs and restaurants will be restricted by law to offering table service only and must close at 10 p.m., beginning Thursday, Downing Street said late Monday; ordinarily, there is no mandatory closing time, though many close at 11 p.m. The new rules are the most stringent since restaurants, pubs and many other businesses were allowed to emerge from full lockdown in July.

Johnson was scheduled to officially announce his latest move in Parliament on Tuesday before making a broadcast address in the evening. The intervention comes after days of speculation that Britons could face tougher enforcement of existing rules, new curbs on different households meeting up with each other and shorter opening hours for pubs and restaurants.

Tighter restrictions are already in place in some parts of the country, and the virus alert rating was raised Monday to level four, signifying that it is in general circulation, with transmission high or rising exponentially.

“No one underestimates the challenges the new measures will pose to many individuals and businesses. We know this won’t be easy, but we must take further action to control the resurgence in cases of the virus and protect the National Health Service,” Downing Street said in a statement.

Like much of Europe, Britain is firmly in the grip of a second wave of the pandemic. Confirmed new infections fell from more than 5,000 a day in April and May to about 600 in early July, but have rebounded to about 3,600.

Two of Britain’s top scientific advisers warned Monday that the number of cases was doubling about every seven days, and painted an alarming picture of what lay ahead.

Without action, there could be 50,000 new infections per day by mid-October and around 200 daily deaths by mid-November, they said in a televised statement that prepared the ground for Tuesday’s statement by the prime minister.

However, Johnson’s latest move has been a difficult balancing act.

He has been widely blamed for missteps that have worsened the pandemic in Britain, which has the highest death toll in Europe — almost 42,000 by one government count, and more than 52,000 by another. He delayed ordering a lockdown in March, when cases and deaths were soaring, he was also slow to require masks in stores, and Britain’s virus testing and contact tracing programs have been inadequate.

The government is anxious to avoid a repetition of those costly errors. At the same time, there is a vigorous debate about the economic cost of coronavirus restrictions, their impact on mental health and the threat they pose to individual liberty.

Critics accuse the government of confused messaging and of making too many announcements for the public to keep track of. Having encouraged white collar workers two weeks ago to return to their offices, so as to spur central city economies, the government has now reversed itself and soft-pedaled that message.

Only recently it tightened rules to prevent gatherings of more than six people and announced fines of up to 10,000 pounds — almost $13,000 — for those who refuse to self-isolate after testing positive for the virus. The restrictions imposed by the central government apply only to England; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland set their own policies, which have followed a similar pattern.

Most analysts believe that the government is desperate to protect a fragile economic recovery and keep schools open, despite the changes to be announced Tuesday. The new restrictions underscore the government’s conclusion that the virus is spreading mainly through social contact and particularly among younger people.

Should the situation worsen, the government has been considering a short period of more far-reaching restrictions to act as a kind of circuit break to halt the spread of the virus.

During talks Monday with political leaders from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, Johnson “made clear that the rising infection rates are a cause for great concern, which he is taking very seriously,” Downing Street said in a statement put out after the discussion.

It added that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish leaders would be invited to attend a meeting of an emergency committee Tuesday morning — before Johnson’s statement — “to discuss next steps for the country.”

Cases and fatalities are rising faster in several Western European countries, like France and Spain, but there are growing fears that Britain is following the same trajectory, with infections rising sharply as students return to school and as some workers trickle back to their offices.

Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said Monday that the country had “in a bad sense, literally turned a corner,” but he also conceded that policymakers have to strike a difficult balance.

“If we do too little this virus will go out of control, and we will get significant numbers of increased direct and indirect deaths,” he said. “But if we go too far the other way, then we can cause damage to the economy, which can feed through to unemployment to poverty, to deprivation, all of which have long-term health effects.”

Britain faces a “a six-month problem” as it heads into the fall and winter, which tend to be bad for respiratory diseases, he added in a broadcast statement with Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser.

Surveys generally show that Britons remain concerned about the coronavirus and, earlier this year, there was strong support for lockdown measures.

But on Monday more than 20 experts signed an open letter arguing that coronavirus restriction measures were going too far in aiming to suppress the virus. That objective — which the government has not publicly embraced — was “increasingly unfeasible” and “inconsistent with the known risk profile of COVID-19,” they argued.

“More targeted measures that protect the most vulnerable from COVID, whilst not adversely impacting those not at risk, are more supportable,” they added.

Some lawmakers from Johnson’s Conservative Party fret about the economic damage done to the country by COVID-19 restrictions and object to the government’s issuing rules without consulting Parliament.

“Restraints on liberty deserve prior scrutiny and approval by Parliament,” wrote Steve Baker, one influential backbench lawmaker, on Twitter.

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