British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put some of the country’s next steps out of lockdown on hold Friday with just a few hours’ notice, saying the number of new coronavirus cases was on the rise for the first time since May.
The government’s top medical adviser warned that it was impossible to fully reopen society without the virus running out of control.
Johnson said statistics showed that the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community is likely increasing, with an estimated 4,900 new infections every day, up from 2,000 a day at the end of June. Britain has Europe’s highest confirmed death toll in the pandemic, more than 46,000, behind only the United States and Brazil.
“We just can’t afford to ignore this evidence,” Johnson said at a news conference. “With those numbers creeping up, our assessment is that we should now squeeze (the) brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control.”
Johnson called off plans to allow venues, including casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks, to open beginning Saturday. The return of wedding receptions was also delayed, along with plans to allow some fans back into sports stadiums and limited audiences into theaters.
He said the measures will be reviewed after two weeks.
The prime minister said a rule requiring face coverings to be worn in shops and on public transit will be extended to museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship beginning on Aug. 8.
One change that was not put on hold: Beginning Saturday, U.K. businesses can ask employees to return to workplaces as long as they have been made “COVID secure.”
Scientists advising the government say they are no longer confident that the R figure, which measures how many people each infected person passes the disease to, is below 1 in England. A number above 1 means the virus will spread exponentially.
England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, said the country had reached “the outer edge” of its ability to return to normal without risking a new wave of the disease.
“We have to be realistic about this,” he said at the news conference. “The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong.
“If we do pull back, then we should be able to hold the line.”
Britain imposed a nationwide lockdown in March — closing schools and businesses and barring all but essential travel — and has been lifting it in stages since June.
Countries across Europe that were hit hard by the pandemic in the spring, including Spain, are seeing rising infection rates after lifting lockdowns. Johnson said Britain was not immune from the resurgence.
“We must keep our discipline,. We must be focused and we cannot be complacent,” he said.
On Thursday, the government re-imposed restrictions on social life across a swath of northern England because of a surge in cases, barring households from visiting one another.
Under the new restrictions, people from different households in Greater Manchester, England’s second largest metropolitan area, have been asked not to meet indoors. The order also applies to the surrounding areas of Lancashire and West Yorkshire counties, affecting more than 4 million people in all.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said while it’s not the “sort of decision that anybody would want to take,’’ the government had no choice because data showed the coronavirus was being spread primarily between households.
Opposition politicians supported the move but criticized the government for announcing the restrictions in a tweet from Hancock late Thursday, just two hours before they took effect at midnight.
Labour Party business spokeswoman Lucy Powell said the “bolt out of the blue” approach was “not the way to build confidence and to take people with you and maximize compliance with these steps.”
The affected region has a large Muslim population, and the restrictions coincide with the Eid al-Adha holiday, where many people would normally gather in each other’s homes.
The Muslim Council of Britain’s secretary general, Harun Khan, sharply criticized the way the announcement was made, saying that for Muslims “it is like being told they cannot visit family and friends for Christmas on Christmas Eve itself.”
The restrictions on northern England are the second batch of local restrictions imposed in Britain to try to curb a second wave of the virus, following a stricter local lockdown in the central England city of Leicester. The government said restaurants, pubs, shops and hairdressers in Leicester could reopen beginning Monday, more than a month after they were closed.
Britain’s pandemic death toll is five times higher than Germany’s, a country with a larger population. Johnson has said there will be an independent inquiry into why the U.K. has had such a high coronavirus death toll.