Government to ban meetings of more than six people from Monday

Boris Johnson

Social gatherings of more than six people will be banned in England under new measures designed to be easier to understand and enforce.

Boris Johnson will say today that meeting in larger groups for fun will become illegal in England from Monday as ministers try to prevent a sharp increase in coronavirus cases leading to a second wave of deaths.

Local curfews in areas such as Bradford are also being considered as the government seeks to emulate Belgium, which has bucked the trend of rising numbers of cases in Europe by banning people from going out at night. Stricter measures have already been enforced in Bolton, including takeaways shutting at 10pm.

Police will be told to break up gatherings of more than six individuals, indoors or outdoors, in response to the new wave of infections being fuelled by young people socialising. Workplaces are not covered by the rules, and exemptions will also be made for weddings and funerals.

Ministers accept that present rules based on more than two households mixing, which vary depending on whether they meet indoors or outdoors, are confusing, and police have complained that they are difficult to enforce.

Mr Johnson will say today: “We need to act now to stop the virus spreading. So we are simplifying and strengthening the rules on social contact — making them easier to understand and for the police to enforce.”

The prime minister told the cabinet that he feared people were becoming complacent about social-distancing rules as the rate of infections fell over the summer. An advertising campaign, starting today, will explain how social distancing, hand washing and face coverings reduce the spread of the virus.

Mr Johnson will say it is “critical” that people “remember the basics — washing your hands, covering your face, keeping space from others, and getting a test if you have symptoms”.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told MPs that a second wave of infection could be “coming towards our shores” and that “each and every citizen has a responsibility to follow social distancing and stop a second peak”.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, urged people to follow hygiene and distance guidance. “If we stop social distancing, Covid comes back,” he said. “Following these simple steps could make a significant difference in reducing the transmission of Covid-19 and help protect you and your friends, colleagues and family from the virus.”

Yesterday 2,420 cases were reported in England, the third successive day that the figure had exceeded 2,000.

Police forces have told Mr Johnson that the rules were too complicated to enforce, with official guidance differing from a legal ban on indoor gatherings of more than 30 people. This will be reduced to six and extended to cover meeting outdoors in gardens, parks and pubs and restaurants. Individuals who do not comply with requests to disperse will be fined £100, rising to £3,200 for repeat offences.

A further 30 deaths were reported yesterday. Overall numbers remain low, but Mr Hancock said: “You have to act before this disease spreads to those who may die, because the alternative is we will inevitably see deaths rise.”

Ministers believe that family and social life is driving the rise in infections as relatives and friends meet in homes where social distancing and other precautions are not observed. Mr Hancock said that measures were “targeted as much as possible on reducing social activity, which is where we’re increasingly seeing the transmission”.

He denied suggestions that the prime minister’s attempts to get workers back to offices had contributed to the increase. He also rejected “segregation” of the generations, saying that it “has simply not been effective anywhere in the world. Young people may pass it on to their parents who in turn pass it on to their parents. We can’t let this rip through any part of the population as it will inevitably get into all.”

The crackdown met with opposition yesterday. Sir Edward Leigh, the Conservative backbencher, told Mr Hancock that with contradictory advice coming from the government “fewer and fewer people are listening to the secretary of state, particularly young people”.

Sir Edward warned that the health secretary would become “the emperor without clothes” unless he stopped trying to enforce lockdown and switched instead to advising the young not to mix with the old.

David Nabarro, the World Health Organisation’s coronavirus envoy, suggested that the death rate was low in Britain because older people were already being “super-careful”.

“The people most likely to die are less likely to get the disease because they are protecting themselves carefully. They know that if they get this virus it could well mean the end of their lives,” he told Sky News.

Commenting on the announcement, Chloe Cotton, founder of the train-themed kids party business, Trainmaster: “I have absolutely no idea if this will affect my business as yet again a vague evening announcement has been made which spreads fear and confusion. My business has only been back up-and-running a few weeks after receiving no Government support when we were forced to close. We operate in covid-secure venues, following the guidelines and ensuring everyone keeps apart but I have no idea if this is enough. I’m feeling absolutely heartbroken that I might have to close again after working hard to regain customers and open in a safe way.”

Mike Fishpen, owner of Mike Fishpen Personal Chef Services spoke for many small businesses: “I feel like giving up! In recent weeks, for the first time in a long time, I have had lots of people contact me and book in private dinner parties. On Wednesday morning, I promptly received three emails saying that people need their deposits back as guests are no longer coming. I have even lost a large deposit for Christmas Day. It’s hard to know if I will have any income now going into winter.”