New rules banning 4.5 million people from meeting in private gardens were rushed out with just three hours’ notice after ministers were told that a steep rise in coronavirus cases was being driven by friends socialising at home and dropping their guard.
It was followed by Boris Johnson announcing at a Downing Street press briefing on Friday that the easing of some lockdown measures in England on Saturday would be postponed for at least two weeks.
Before the delay was announced, small weddings would have been able to take place and bowling alleys and casinos could reopen from August 1.
The Prime Minister also said that face coverings are to be mandatory in indoor settings where people are likely to come into contact with people they do not know, such as museums and places of worship, from August 8.
Spelling out the danger of unguarded socialising earlier on Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “One of the terrible things about this virus is it thrives on the sort of social contact that makes life worth living.”
The Government was accused of creating confusion with a hasty late-night announcement — and even the Health Secretary appeared to get the new rules wrong this morning.
When asked by the BBC if households could meet up in gardens outside the lockdown zone, he said yes, adding: “Following social distancing”.
However, detailed guidance issued by the Department of Health states specifically that “you should not visit someone else’s home or garden even if they live outside of the affected areas”.
Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham said: “It’s for the Government to clear up this confusion.”
The announcement at 9.16pm last night of the crackdown in the North followed data briefed to a meeting of ministers that there was a rise in the number of infections and that it was caused by people socialising without effective social distancing.
Separate data from Cambridge University put the South East and the South West in the crosshairs for action, showing the R rates of virus transmission have risen above the ceiling of one, meaning that cases could surge exponentially.
Official data published this morning showed some 35,700 people in England had Covid-19 in the week to July 26 —about one in every 1,500 individuals.
The Office for National Statistics warned: “There is now evidence to suggest a slight increase in the number of people in England testing positive in recent weeks.”
It estimated about 4,200 new cases per day. Some 6.2 per cent tested positive for antibodies, suggesting they had the infection in the past.
Asked on Sky News if he was willing to take the same action in London and the South East, Mr Hancock replied that he would not flinch. “We’ve demonstrated that we’re prepared to take the actions necessary to keep people safe,” he said. “And that was true in Leicester when we took action there. And we’re taking much more localised action in hundreds of different locations across the country.”
He added: “In the South West and the South East, thankfully, the number of cases is much lower, so we haven’t had to take this sort of action but we don’t shy away from taking it.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told the Evening Standard: “This is the right decision, but the communication has been extremely poor … In future an announcement of this scale must be done with proper clarity and via a press conference, as the Prime Minister promised.”
Mr Hancock defended the rushed announcement, saying: “It’s important sometimes to move quickly if that’s what’s needed.”
But conceding that people were baffled by the rules, he announced a publicity campaign that he said would make them “even clearer”.
Under the rules, covering Greater Manchester and parts of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire, families can no longer meet up with friends except in public spaces, with an exception for those who have formed a support bubble.
Socialising with other households is also forbidden in pubs, restaurants, shops and leisure centres.
Police will be able to take action against those that break these rules, including asking people to disperse and issuing £100 fixed penalty notices.
Mr Hancock said “the vast majority” of cases resulted from “visiting friends and relatives”, and denied that the action was aimed at curtailing Eid celebrations this weekend. “No, my heart goes out to the Muslim communities in these areas,” he told BBC Breakfast.
The guidelines recommend that where possible “religious services take place outdoors”.
It comes as a survey by the Office for National Statistics suggested that less than half of adults spending time with family and friends are fully respecting social distancing measures.