LONDON—British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a series of new coronavirus restrictions for England, including earlier pub-closing times, as his government tries to quell a second wave of infections while avoiding another economically damaging nationwide lockdown.
In an address to Parliament, Mr. Johnson unveiled both tightening and tougher enforcement of social-distancing rules, with fines of up to 10,000 pounds, equivalent to $12,800, for businesses that fail to adhere to them.
The government, however, has so far held off banning people from visiting other households or ordering them to stay at home, worried about the knock-on effects on the economy.
“As in Spain and France and many other counties, we have reached a perilous turning point,” said Mr. Johnson. “We reserve the right to deploy greater fire power…I fervently want to avoid taking this step.”
The conundrum faced by Mr. Johnson is one that is playing out across Europe as a wave of infections takes hold. So far, European governments have largely avoided imposing new wide-scale lockdowns. Chastened by the first wave of Covid-19, which left the U.K. with the highest death rate and the biggest economic slump in Europe, Mr. Johnson’s government is again trying to strike a balance between taming the virus and reviving the economy.
Britain is seeing fewer new cases as a proportion of its population than countries like France, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands, but more than Germany and Italy, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
Britain’s top scientific advisers addressed the nation earlier this week to warn that if behavior didn’t improve, the virus could spread rapidly. They predicted that if nothing were done, the U.K.’s daily death rate could soar to 200 by mid-October, from low double digits in recent days.
“There is the potential for this to move very fast,” said Patrick Vallance, U.K. government chief scientific adviser. Positive tests for the virus numbered more than 4,900 on Tuesday. Mr. Vallance said this could rise to 50,000 by the middle of next month without action.
Mr. Johnson said the number of new cases was growing fastest among the 20-29 age group, but evidence showed it was spreading to other more vulnerable age groups, as it has in France and Spain.
He said daily hospital admissions in England had more than doubled in the last two weeks. Official statistics show around 200 admissions in England on Saturday, compared with more than 3,000 at the peak in early-April. Thirty-seven new deaths were reported Tuesday.
Spain is currently confronting Europe’s biggest outbreak, with an average of over 11,100 new cases detected daily over the past week. That is putting Spanish hospitals under renewed pressure, particularly in hard-hit areas like Madrid, where a fourth of hospital beds are currently occupied by Covid-19 patients.
On Monday, Spanish authorities imposed a partial lockdown on the city, restricting the movement of the 860,000 residents of the worst-affected neighborhoods. Across Madrid, group gatherings of over six people are now banned.
Cases have rebounded also in Italy, but not as much as in other parts of Europe, with an average of around 1,500 daily cases. That is partly because Italians are behaving cautiously. Face masks, for instance, are widely worn, even when they aren’t obligatory.
In France, which has recently recorded daily increases of more than 10,000 cases, the government has ordered people to wear masks on the street in some cities, inside offices and other places where people gather in groups. However, the government has stopped short of ordering people to stay home and has recently loosened restrictions on schools.
Over the last week, France’s Covid-19 death count has averaged about 50 daily, with almost 600 daily hospital admissions.
Belgium on Wednesday was set to decide on new restrictive rules, after a constant rise in infections since families returned from vacations in southern Europe.
In neighboring Netherlands, new restrictions kicked in on Monday in six provinces, including the cities of Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam, after a rise in infections.
Restaurants, cafes and casinos are now no longer permitted to admit clients as of midnight and have to close by 1 a.m. The maximum number of people allowed to gather for events will be capped at 50 in these cities, with the exception of protests, schools and funerals.
The U.K.’s Fight With Covid-19
Mr. Johnson said he expected the curbs announced Tuesday to last for six months. However, around 13 million people, or one in five of the population, are already living under more stringent local restrictions, including bans on hosting or visiting other households.
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Under the new rules in England, which will take effect over the coming days, people will have to wear face masks while riding taxis and weddings will be limited to 15 people. Pubs and restaurants will close at 10 p.m., with only table service allowed and servers required to wear masks. Mr. Johnson urged people to work from home if they could. A plan to allow people to watch live sporting events from Oct. 1 was called off.
Mr. Johnson said the military could be drafted to free up police officers to enforce the rules.
The announcement is another change in tack for the government, which spent most of the summer nudging people to return to normal working and spending habits. It introduced a policy to subsidize restaurant meals that prompted millions of Britons to flock back to eateries across the country. Mr. Johnson himself said that people should return to their offices as long as they followed social-distancing guidelines.
The Scottish government, which has devolved powers, went further than England, banning people from different households from mixing at home.
Some questioned whether the British government went too far in reopening the economy over the summer. “The U.K. appears to have overshot the equilibrium,”
economists wrote in a note. The reopening of schools, returns from vacations and the taxpayer-subsidized visits to restaurants were blamed for a rise in infections, analysts said.
Meanwhile, the economic recovery still looks shaky. The Confederation of British Industry, a business lobby, said that in September there was no improvement in manufacturing-order books, with levels remaining far weaker than their long-run averages. In a sign of the pain rippling through the economy, restaurant and hotel company
PLC said Tuesday that it was consulting on cutting up to 6,000 job cuts, or 18% of its workforce, as it prepares for a period of subdued demand.
—Margherita Stancati and Valentina Pop contributed to this article.
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