LONDON: Millions more people in northern and central England faced new restrictions over a surge in coronavirus cases, the British government announced on Friday, as it warned another national lockdown could be imminent.
Tighter regulations preventing people from socialising with anyone outside their household will come into force from Tuesday across parts of the northwest, the Midlands and West Yorkshire. Food and drink venues in the northwestern areas of Merseyside, Warrington, Halton and Lancashire will be restricted to table service only, while pubs and bars will have to shut early by 10:00 pm (2100 GMT).
Similar rules were imposed in northeast England on Friday, which put more than two million people under some of the most stringent restrictions since a nationwide lockdown was eased. "Local leaders in these areas have asked for stronger restrictions to be put in place to protect local people, and we are acting decisively to support them," Health Secretary Matt Hancock said as he unveiled the moves.
He had earlier warned the government could re-impose the nationwide lockdown to counter the pandemic, noting that rates of hospital admissions were doubling every eight days. "We want to avoid a national lockdown but we're prepared to do it if we need to. We're prepared to do what it takes both to protect lives and to protect livelihoods," he told BBC television.
Britain has been the worst-hit country in Europe by the pandemic, with nearly 42,000 deaths from COVID-19 and criticism of the government for its response. Numbers of new cases are reaching levels not seen since April, reflecting a similar picture across Europe, where the World Health Organization said there were "alarming rates of transmission".
The WHO's regional director for Europe on Thursday said a September surge "should serve as a wake-up call for all of us". Britain's Office for National Statistics (ONS) confirmed Friday in its weekly survey of COVID-19's spread that "the incidence rate for England has increased in recent weeks".
It estimated there were around 6,000 new daily cases nationwide over the week to September 10 -- roughly double the number typically recorded in statistics released every day by the health ministry.
'No restrictions planned' for London
The ONS noted there was evidence of higher infection rates in London, as well as the northwest.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman told reporters "no restrictions are currently planned" in the capital, while urging compliance with new nationwide rules imposed on Monday limiting social groups to six people.
Government scientists have reportedly proposed a blanket lockdown to come into force across England over two weeks in October, to coincide with English schools' half-term holiday. But the spokesman pushed back against the report. "We've always been clear our strategy is to keep the virus down as much as possible while protecting education and the economy," he added.
The government has faced stinging criticism this week over the failure to achieve the "world-beating" testing and tracing system it promised would be in place over the summer months. Hancock defended the beleaguered testing programme, and said the government was "doing everything we possibly can for the cavalry that's on the horizon of the vaccine and mass testing".