London will join other big cities in Europe, including Paris and Berlin, in tightening restrictions to stem a rapidly rising second wave of coronavirus cases in the region.
Within London, the average number of cases now stands at 97 per 100,000 people, near the threshold for negotiating a move from medium to high risk alert level. Virus-related hospital admissions and deaths are on the rise.
People from different households will be barred from meeting indoors starting Saturday as the city shifts into England’s second-highest alert level, health secretary Matt Hancock announced in Parliament on Thursday. People will also be discouraged from using public transportation.
The increased measures will also apply to the city of York in northern England, as well as the Essex region and parts of central England.
The weekly number of new coronavirus cases in Europe is now at its highest point since the start of the pandemic, a top World Health Organization official said on Thursday, urging governments to impose tighter, targeted controls on social gatherings.
“We’re at a critical moment in our fight against Covid-19,” London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said during a meeting at City Hall on Thursday.
He sharply criticized the government’s virus testing program in a statement a short while later.
“I know these further restrictions will require Londoners to make yet more sacrifices, but the disastrous failure of the test, trace and isolate system leaves us with little choice,” he said in the statement.
While Mr. Hancock on Thursday said that testing capacity was up, the government’s test and trace system has been plagued with issues. In Birmingham, a local council was found to have distributed about 25 used swab-test kits to households by mistake.
Jonathan Ashworth, the opposition Labour Party’s lead lawmaker on health issues, also criticized the testing program, arguing that the measures announced Thursday would be insufficient to halt the spread of the virus. He reiterated his call for the government to impose a national lockdown — and to provide more financial support to mitigate the impact of virus restrictions.
Hospitality and travel industries were hit particularly hard by the impact of the new rules. Shares in Marston’s, a large chain of bars and pubs in Britain, fell as much as 8 percent and the company said it was looking to cut 2,150 jobs that are currently furloughed.
The announcement came after the government published data that showed the country’s jobless rate had already climbed to a three-year high and there were a record number of layoffs in August, adding to concerns that Britain will experience a sharp rise in unemployment this winter.
The head of the World Health Organization’s Europe office, Hans Kluge, said Thursday that restrictions on social gatherings were “absolutely necessary” and that more drastic action might be needed. The number of confirmed cases in Europe rose by a million to seven million in just 10 days, Dr. Kluge warned, and the number of daily deaths has passed 1,000.
British scientists have proposed that the government schedule a temporary “circuit breaker” lockdown for the last week of October and first week of November, when schools are closed for midterm break, to make it less disruptive. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted the idea, maintaining his position that targeted measures are best.