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Johnson Tells British Public to Socialize Less as Virus Surges

Emily Ashton and Alex Morales

(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson told the British public to limit social contact as much as possible as coronavirus infection rates rise across the country, threatening its fragile economic recovery.

The prime minister confirmed plans to ban gatherings of more than six people in England, and urged compliance to slow the spread of the disease and avoid a repeat of earlier restrictions which shuttered businesses, closed schools and plunged the U.K. into recession into its deepest recession in at least a century.

“I must do what is necessary to stop the spread of the virus and save lives,” Johnson told a press conference in London on Wednesday. “These measures are not another national lockdown -- the whole point of them is to avoid another national lockdown.”

The premier is grappling with how to revive economic activity while still stamping down on a pandemic that’s seen Britain’s official death toll reach 41,594 deaths, more than any other European nation. The economy shrank a record 20.4% in the second quarter and the national debt has surged past 2 trillion pounds ($2.6 trillion) for the first time.

“We think, we hope, we believe” that a “moonshot” plan for “pregnancy-style” quick-turnaround tests will get some parts of life “back to normal by Christmas,” he said.

Mass Testing

Late Wednesday, the Guardian newspaper reported that the cost of the “moonshot” plan could reach 100 billion pounds, citing official documents, which would be equivalent to the U.K.’s entire education budget. The project would aim to conduct 10 million virus tests per day, the Guardian reported.

Johnson said the program would identify people who don’t have the virus so they can behave in a more normal way. This would give individuals who don’t have the virus a “passport” to “mingle” with others who are not infectious -- potentially in cinemas, theaters, workplaces and sporting venues, he said.

Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said the technology improvements needed to achieve Johnson’s mass testing goals aren’t a “slam dunk,” and the premier himself said he couldn’t “100% guarantee” it.

Johnson also:

Announced that venues where people meet socially will now be required by law to keep contact details of a member of every group visiting themWarned that hospitality venues face fines if they operate while not “Covid-secure”Said authorities will step up enforcement of quarantine rules for travelersSaid the government is reviewing plans to return audiences to sports stadiums in October

The new rules are shifting the onus on the hospitality industry to protect public health, UKHospitality Chief Executive Officer Kate Nicholls said in a statement. “Any fines charged against hospitality venues for breaching Covid-secure requirements must be proportionate and pertain to factors wholly under the control of the venue.”

The prime minister’s intervention came as U.K. officials grow increasingly concerned about the surge in Covid-19 cases, which is driven by young people contracting the virus.

‘Out of Control’

“We need to do the minimum that has to be done so we minimize the damage, but enough so things don’t go out of control,” said Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, speaking alongside Johnson. “Things had started to go out of control.”

Under the changes in the rules, from Monday it will be illegal in England for more than six people to meet -- indoors or outdoors -- though there are exceptions for education and workplaces, regular religious services as well as major life events such as weddings and funerals.

The new limit will be enforceable by police, who will be able to issue fines for breaches. “We are simplifying and strengthening the rules -- making them easier for you to understand and for the police to enforce,” Johnson said.

The measures, including fines for venues that don’t heed the rules, threaten to undermine pubs and restaurants after the government spent August trying to shore up the industry by subsidizing diners’ meals to the tune of more than 500 million pounds.

Though young people are at less risk of falling seriously ill or dying from the disease, Johnson’s scientific advisers warn they can pass the virus on to older or more vulnerable members of the population.

Officials say the next six months will be critical in getting a grip on the disease, as the weather turns colder and more people stay indoors. Unless there is a breakthrough in vaccine development in the coming months, the government expects to continue some restrictions and local lockdowns until the spring -- while attempting to make sure the National Health Service stays fully open to prevent wider public health damage.

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