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Boris Johnson ‘squeezes the brake pedal’ on lockdown easing — as Chris Whitty says Britain ‘near the limits’ of safe changes

The Prime Minister defended the Government’s decision to re-impose some lockdown measures in the north of England. (PA)

7 min read

Boris Johnson has decided to “squeeze the brake pedal” on easing coronavirus lockdown restrictions — as chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the country was now “near the limit” of what could be safely lifted.

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference after a series of restrictions were imposed in parts of the north of England late on Thursday, the Prime Minister announced a pause on some reopening measures and a toughening of the rules around face masks in a bid to halt the spread of Covid-19.

And Professor Whitty said a rising number of cases meant that any fresh easing of lockdown measures would now likely mean other curbs being reimposed.

The Prime Minister addressed the country after some lockdown measures were reimposed in parts of northern England.

Mr Johnson said that while "most people in this country are following the rules, and doing best to control the virus", he urged Brits to follow rules on "hands, face and space" to limit its spread.

And he made clear that a host of planned easing measures due for Saturday - including the reopening of casinos, bowling alleys, skating rinks, pilot schemes for indoor sports and theatre performances and a return of wedding ceremonies - would now be paused "for at least a fortnight".

"I have said our plan to reopen society and the economy is conditional, that it relies on continued progress against the virus, and we would not hesitate to put the brakes on if required," Mr Johnson said.

"With those numbers creeping up our assessment is that we should now, squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control."

He added: "We will also extend the requirement to wear a face covering to other indoor settings where you might need to come into contact with people, you do not normally meet such as museums, galleries cinemas, and places of worship.

"We now recommend face coverings are worn in these settings and this will become enforceable in law from 8 August.

"At this stage, we are not changing the rules on social contact nationally.

"I don't want to tell people to spend less time with their friends, but unless people follow the rules and behave safely we may need to go further."

He told the country: "Two weeks ago I said we would hope for the best but plan for the worst and of course we continue to hope for the best.

"But the way to get that and to achieve that optimum outcome is, if we all follow the rules, wash our hands cover our faces, keep our distance and get a test if we have symptoms.

"So the NHS Test and Trace can keep the virus under control. And that is how we will avoid any return to a full national lockdown.

"We made huge progress together. I know we're going to succeed. And I know we're going to beat this, if each and every one of us continues to play our part as ever."


In a significant tightening of coronavirus restrictions, the Government on Thursday night moved to ban separate households from meeting indoors in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire.

Ministers said they had been prompted to act by a rise in coronavirus cases in parts of northern England — with Health Secretary Matt Hancock warning that a “lack of social distancing” had contributed.

On Friday the Government released its latest estimates of the reproductive 'R' rate of the virus in England, putting it at between 0.8 and 0.9.

But regional breakdowns suggested that the rate in the North West and South West of England was 0.8 to 1.1. 

The Government's scientific advisory group SAGE, said it did "not have confidence that R is currently below 1 in England".

And it said: "We would expect to see this change in transmission reflected in the R and growth rate published over the next few weeks.

Speaking alongside the Prime Minister on Friday afternooon, Professor Whitty made clear that the data showed there was now little room for a further easing of lockdown restrictions without risking fresh outbreaks.

"Obviously if we do too little, big impacts on society bigger impacts in terms of increasing all the effects of unemployment and all the things that go with that, so it is a very, very difficult balancing act," the chief medical officer said.

"And I think what we're seeing from the data... is that we have probably reached near the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society.

"So what that means, potentially, is if we wish to do more things in the future we may have to do less of some other things.

"And these will be difficult to trade off - some of which will be decisions of government and some of which are for all of us as citizens to do."

He added: "We have to be realistic about this. The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong.

"And what we're seeing is that we are at the outer edge of what we can do, and therefore choices what needs to be made.

"But people, I think are very clear, for example, that schools are an absolute priority for the welfare of children."


The comments come amid a row over a raft of changes in parts of the north of England, where people will no longer be able to meet people from outside their households.

The areas affected by those curbs are Greater Manchester, Burnley, Bradford Pendle, Blackburn with Darwen, Rossendale, Kirkless and Calderdale.

The move was initially announced in a series of tweets by the Health Secretary, alongside a television clip.

Detailed guidance on what the new changes mean in practice did not appear until later in the evening, prompting criticism from opposition parties.

Guidance issued by the Department of Health and Social Care says people in the areas affected by the new rules are "not permitted to mix with other households" apart from those in their support bubbles "in private homes or gardens".

The new measures will be enforceable, with police and local authorities handed the power to impose the restrictions.

But households are permitted to go to bars, pubs and restaurants, although the Government says "two households should not go to hospitality together".


Labour’s Keir Starmer said he supported the shift in guidance in the north of England but hit out at the way the Government had communicated the changes and urged ministers to “learn the lesson of the last 24 hours” for future local lockdowns.

Speaking on Friday, Sir Keir told Sky News: "We're going to see more of these situations over the coming weeks and months.

"The Government needs to learn the lesson of the last 24 hours, which is improve the communication. It should have been a press conference announcing this with real clarity, that's what's needed here.

The Labour leader, on a trip to Peterborough, added: "I think it's very important that the government follows the data.

"That's what I understand they've done here and that's why we support their decision, and as the leader of the opposition, I say to those affected, please follow the advice.

"The issue we have with the government is about communication.

"Confidence is everything here, poor communication late at night without clarity does not help them."

The latest official figures suggest there had been a “slight increase” in positive coronavirus cases in the community over the past week week.

The Office for National Statistics revealed that an estimated 35,700 people had Covid-19 between 20 to 26 July, meaning around 1 in 1,500 individuals had the virus.

It said this represented a noticeable increase from the previous week when around 1 in 2,000 people, 27,700 in total were believed to have tested positive.

The data, which does not include infections in hospitals or care homes, also showed that the number of new daily cases had jumped from 2,800 to 4,200 per day.

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