UK to outline early pub closing as virus alert level raised

By: AFP      Published: 05:43 PM, 22 Sep, 2020
UK to outline early pub closing as virus alert level raised
People are silhouetted against the late summer sun in Liverpool city centre, north-west England after the British government imposed fresh restrictions on the city after a rise in cases of coronavirus. AFP

The UK government on Tuesday announces new measures to stem a rising tide of coronavirus cases, shutting pubs in England early and abandoning its call for people to return to the workplace to help kickstart the battered economy.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who last week said Britain is facing a second wave of infection as elsewhere in Europe, outlines the restrictions to parliament at 1130 GMT. He is then due to make a televised address to the nation at 1900 GMT.

Government scientists have painted a grim picture of up to 50,000 coronavirus cases a day by mid-October, and a month later exceed 200 deaths every day if no action is taken. But Johnson, battling sustained criticism for his handling of the outbreak, faces renewed anger from the hospitality sector, which is only just trying to get back on its feet.

The chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, Kate Nicholls, said the restrictions were "another crushing blow" for the beleaguered industry. "It's hard to understand how these measures are the solution to fighting the disease, when government data shows that just five percent of infections out of the home are related to hospitality," she said.

And remarks from his senior cabinet colleague, Michael Gove, that people should work from home again where possible comes just months after the government encouraged the opposite. Gove also indicated a "pause" to the planned phased return of fans to live sporting events in England from October 1, disappointing sports bodies from football to rugby.

In the latest sign of the fallout of the coronavirus closure, UK leisure group Whitbread announced that it could shed up to 6,000 jobs at its hotel and restaurant chains. Pub chain Wetherspoons also said 1,000 of its staff at UK airports had been warned that 400 to 450 jobs were at risk.

'Keep people sober'

Almost 42,000 people who tested positive for Covid-19 have died in Britain -- the worst death toll in Europe. Another 4,368 positive cases were recorded on Monday in levels not seen since early May when the country was still in lockdown.  

As ministers warned of a "tipping point", the Covid-19 alert level was raised from level three to four, indicating that rates of transmission were now "high or rising exponentially". Johnson's office said late on Monday that English pubs, bars and other hospitality venues will have to shut at least an hour earlier at 10:00 pm (2100 GMT).

Food and drink outlets will be restricted to table service only. Similar restrictions are already in place across swathes of northern and central England with high numbers of cases. Concerns have been raised that shutting pubs and bars early could lead to unregulated events and house parties where the virus could spread easily, particularly among young people.

But Jennifer Cole, a biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway University, rejected suggestions the early closing time would make little difference. "We know that the biggest influences in people's risk-taking behaviour is alcohol. The more drunk you are, the less inhibited and less risk-averse you are," she said.

"Closing the bars and restaurants at 10:00 pm simply keeps more people sober" and more likely to take preventative measures, such as wearing face coverings on public transport, she added.

Julian Tang, a respiratory sciences specialist at the University of Leicester, said the move may appear "soft" but was preferable to another national lockdown.

"It could have a useful impact, if everyone tries to stick to it, to hopefully reduce the R number," he added.

The UK government is in charge of health policy for England, and Downing Street said it hoped the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will follow suit.

The first ministers in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast were attending an emergency contingency planning committee in London on Tuesday morning.