LONDON, UK - Britain became the latest European country to impose restrictions on socializing Wednesday following a sharp rise in coronavirus transmission rates. The number of new cases is roughly doubling every week, and the chief medical officer has warned of 50,000 new infections daily by mid-October if the pattern continues.
Britain has suffered the highest number of coronavirus deaths in Europe, with over 41,000 fatalities.
Under the new rules, pubs and restaurants will be forced to close by 10 p.m. and will be restricted to table service. Bar and wait staff, taxi drivers and shop workers will be required by law to wear face masks, and there will be stiffer penalties for anyone breaking the new rules. People are once again being encouraged to work from home if possible.
In a televised address Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the blame partly on the public.
"While the vast majority have complied with the rules, there have been too many breaches, too many opportunities, for our invisible enemy to slip through undetected. The virus has started to spread again in an exponential way," Johnson said.
Over the summer, the message from government was very different as transmission rates were lower following the hard lockdown in March and April. During August, the government tried to get people back out and spending by paying half of diners' food bills under its "Eat Out to Help Out" scheme. Workers were encouraged to return to the office, in the hope that people would begin spending money again on take-out meals, and in bars and restaurants, hair salons and the numerous other services that had suffered amid the lockdown.
Following the prime minister's address Tuesday, many people expressed confusion at the changing message.
"It is all a bit back and forth, up and down, no one knows which way to go," said London resident Adam Veasey, a photocopier salesman.
"I think people have forgotten because there hasn't been one clear, specific message that has resulted in this sort of behavior that we're seeing now, and I think everyone has relaxed," said fellow London resident Richard, who declined to give his family name.
Some medical experts have voiced concern that the new restrictions don't go far enough.
"Things have already really started to escape our grasp, especially with testing breakdowns," Dr. Peter Drobac, a global health expert at the University of Oxford, told VOA in an interview Wednesday. "Given all of that, I do have concerns about whether the measures that were announced ... will actually be enough to stem the tide."
Others, including Carl Heneghan, director of the Oxford University Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, say the government is right to hold back on a full lockdown.
"This is a long winter. We cannot afford to go now with harsh measures because the impact on the economy here is going to be significant, because what happens is soon as we pause, then you open up again, it tends to come back," Heneghan said.
In recent weeks, some people with coronavirus symptoms have struggled to get tests and results have been delayed by several days. The government says the problems will be resolved within weeks. Testing remains vital in the fight against the pandemic, according to Drobac.
"If you look at the countries that have been most successful, including countries that never had to resort to full lockdowns, one of the big differences is they invested early in testing and tracing capabilities. We've never, I think, met the mark here in the U.K. on that," he said.
Business groups, especially pubs and restaurants, have voiced alarm at the tightening of restrictions. Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, an industry group, said the new curfew could bankrupt businesses.
"We've still got one in five premises closed, 900,000 people still supported by full furlough, which is coming to an end in a matter of weeks. And a 10 p.m. curfew means that businesses have to be empty, closed and locked up by 10 p.m. That means last orders at 9:00. That halves restaurant revenues, it decimates pub sector trade," Nicholls told Britain's ITN News.
The furlough scheme has supported around 10 million jobs by paying up to 90% of workers' wages. That program is due to end next month, and the government is under increasing pressure to extend it amid warnings of soaring unemployment.