‘Near the limit’: Lockdown easing postponed and face mask rules expanded

The planned easing of lockdown restrictions in England has been postponed for at least a fortnight – with face masks to become mandatory by law in most public indoor settings on 8 August.

Boris Johnson told a Downing Street briefing that the decision to “squeeze that brake pedal” on changes had been taken due to coronavirus infection numbers “creeping up” and “in order to keep the virus under control”.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, meanwhile, warned the country had “probably reached near the limits, or the limits, of what we can do in terms of opening up society” without causing a further spike in COVID-19 cases.

Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty says that we 'have reached the limits' of what we can do to reopen society.
‘At outer edge’ of lockdown easing

It means plans due to come in to force on Saturday to reopen casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks will not now happen until 15 August at the earliest.

In addition, indoor performances will not resume, pilots of larger gatherings in sports venues and conference centres will not take place, and wedding receptions of up to 30 people will not be permitted, as had been planned.

The prime minister also announced that rules around face coverings would be extended to make them mandatory in most public indoor settings, “such as museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship”.

He said this measure would become enforceable in law from 8 August.

More from Covid-19

Mr Johnson also revealed what he described as a “pretty punchy” new slogan – “Hands, face, space” – for people to keep in mind.

The PM later tweeted: “There are some very simple ways we can all protect ourselves and others from the spread of coronavirus.

“Wash your hands, cover your face & make space. #HandsFaceSpace”

NHS and government slogan on washing and keeping your distance
Image: A poster showing the government’s new advice

“Most people in this country are following the rules and doing their best to control the virus,” he said.

“But we must keep our discipline and our focus and we cannot be complacent.

“I have asked the Home Secretary to work with the police and others to ensure the rules which are already in place are properly enforced.”

He said this would mean “a greater police presence to ensure face coverings are being worn where this is required”.

“At this stage, we are not changing the rules on social contact nationally,” he added, before warning a further tightening of restrictions may be necessary.

“I don’t want to tell people to spend less time with their friends,” he said.

“But unless people follow the rules and behave safely, we may need to go further.”

Boris Johnson speaks at coronavirus news conference
PM’s off-mic moment after ‘hands, face, space’ repetition

Mr Whitty said: “We all know that what we have to try and do is to get to the absolute edge of what we can do in terms of opening up society and the economy without getting to the point where the virus starts to take off again.

“We have probably reached near the limits, or the limits, of what we can do in terms of opening up society.”

It came as the government’s scientific advisory group (SAGE), of which he is a key member, said it “does not have confidence” the R number is currently below the crucial figure of 1 in England.

The latest estimate puts the R rate – which refers to the number of people on average that an infected person passes the virus on to – at between 0.8-0.9.

But SAGE said estimates reflected the transmission levels of coronavirus from several weeks ago, as there is a delay between people becoming infected and needing healthcare.

It comes after new rules announced overnight saw separate households banned from meeting indoors from today, in Greater Manchester, East Lancashire and parts of West Yorkshire.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News those new restrictions were “absolutely necessary”, adding: “When you face a pandemic like this, it is important to move quickly if that’s what needed.”

Latest figures show there were 880 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus up to 9am on Friday, bringing the total to 303,181.

The government said a total of 46,119 have now died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community after testing positive for coronavirus as of 5pm on Thursday, up by 120 on the day before.

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