Couples who do not live together should either stay apart during the coronavirus lockdown or “test the strength of their relationship” by moving in with each other, deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries has said.
Dr Harries’ comments ended confusion over whether courting couples risk a £30 fine if they venture out to meet one another during the three-week period during which Boris Johnson has told all Britons to stay at home.
The penalty for going out without good reason is due to come into force from Thursday – with “significantly” higher fines likely to be introduced if there are persistent breaches.
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Asked at a “virtual press conference” taking place via video link in 10 Downing Street whether couples who live apart can meet up during the lockdown, and if they do whether they can be physically affectionate towards one another, Dr Harries joked that she had better “tread carefully” if she was going to “start a new career in relationship counselling”.
But she was very clear in laying down the law: “The principle is that we want people to stay in their household units primarily. The reason for that is because if you have an infection you are very close with your family members, so your risk of exposure to the virus is pretty similar usually across the family. We almost expect another member of the family to get that unless they’re applying very, very stringent precautions.
“So if two individuals – two halves of a couple – are currently in separate households, then ideally they should stay in those households.
“The alternative might be that for quite a significant period going forward they should just test the strength of their relationship and decide whether one wishes to be permanently resident in another household.
“The issue here is that we do not want to have people switching in and out of households. It would defeat the purpose of the reduction in social interactions and would allow transmission of disease.
“So perhaps test really carefully your strength of feeling and stay with the household either together or apart, but keep it that way while we go forward because otherwise we will not all be working towards achieving our outcome.”
Standing alongside her, health secretary Matt Hancock signalled his approval: “There you go – make the choice and stick with it.”
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New instructions issued by Mr Johnson require everyone to stay at home apart from for once-daily exercise sessions, essential shopping expeditions, medical care or work which cannot be done from home. While outside, all Britons have been told to keep at least two metres away from anyone who is not part of their household.
Powers for police to impose £30 fines and to break up any group of more than two people will be in place on Thursday, with the threat of a criminal conviction for failure to pay.
The PM’s spokesman declined to comment on a report that punishments could reach a whopping £1,000, but warned: “We will keep this under review and can increase it significantly if necessary in order to ensure public compliance.”
Asked how the rules would be enforced, he said: “As is usual the police will use their own discretion in their use of the powers and will do whatever is appropriate.”