Lockdown relaxations have been slowed in response to a rise in coronavirus cases – numbers of daily new infections have more than doubled since the end of June.
In a hastily planned press conference at 10 Downing Street the day after new lockdown restrictions were imposed in the northwest, Mr Johnson said it was time to “squeeze the brake pedal” on the return to normal life.
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And England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned that the country has potentially reached the limit for how much of society can be opened up without risking losing control of coronavirus.
The prime minister announced a delay on a raft of changes less than 24 hours before they were due to come into effect on Saturday.
He extended the ban on wedding receptions of up to 30 people, as well as the blocks on indoor theatrical performances restarting and entertainment venues opening, including casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks. The reopening of close-contact services in settings like beauty salons was also delayed, as were pilots of sporting events with crowds and gatherings in conference centres.
The prime minister also announced an extension to requirements to wear face-coverings, to include museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship.
The delays were described by the British Chambers of Commerce as a “hammer blow to business and consumer confidence at a time when many firms were just starting to get back on their feet”.
BCC co-executive director Claire Walker said: “Ministers must consider extending support to all firms, many of whom will be forced to close for an even more prolonged period, as well as targeted measures to help businesses placed under localised lockdowns.”
Repeating his new coronavirus mantra of “hands, face, space” to remind Britons to wash their hands, not to touch their face and to maintain space from others, Mr Johnson said he was not scaling back plans to reopen businesses and workplaces. Many staff have been encouraged to see whether they can stop working from home from next week.
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But he said that new figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that around one in 1,500 Britons now have the virus compared to one in 2,000 on 2 July, with an estimated 4,900 new infections every day, up from 2,000 per day at the end of June.
Recalling his previous warning that the lifting of lockdown was “conditional” on progress in beating the disease and that he would not hesitate to reverse plans for easing of restrictions, he said he had to respond to the “warning light on the dashboard”.
“Our assessment is that we should squeeze that brake pedal… in order to keep the virus under control,” he said.
“On Saturday 1 August, you’ll remember we had hoped to reopen a number of the higher-risk settings that had remained closed and today I’m saying we’re postponing those changes for at least a fortnight.
“That means until 15 August at the earliest casinos, bowling alleys, skating rinks and the remaining close-contact services must remain closed.
“Indoor performances will not resume, pilots of larger gatherings in sports venues and conference centres will not take place, and wedding receptions of up to 30 people will not be permitted.”
Mr Johnson said: “I know that the steps we are taking will be a real blow to many people, to everyone whose wedding plans have been disrupted or who cannot now celebrate Eid in the way that they would wish.
“And I’m really, really sorry about that but we cannot simply take the risk.”
Prof Whitty warned: “I think what we’re seeing from the data from ONS and other data is that we have probably reached near the limit or the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society.
“So what that means potentially is that if we wish to do more things in the future, we may have to do less of some other things.
“And these will be difficult trade-offs, some of which will be decisions for government and some of which are for all of us as citizens to do.
“But we have to be realistic about this. The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong.”
Prof Whitty declined to say whether England’s emergence from lockdown had been too fast, pointing out that there were “big disadvantages” to opening up during the winter months when the NHS will be under greatest pressure.
He said ministers’ decision to relax lockdown in a “very staged way” made it possible to “stop things if the system does not allow”.
“That is what is happening today, that is what the prime minister has just announced,” he said. “By going in stages you can stop at certain points and say, ‘Actually this is a perfectly sensible thing to think about, but looking at the data now this does not look like a sensible step to take at this point in time’.”
Asked what he would say to those who are apprehensive about returning to the office, Mr Johnson said: “I want to see people discussing with their employers whether they can work from home. Lots of people can work from home.
“A lot of people discover that it does work. But if employers think, and employees think, that actually to get in, to be productive, you need to be at your place of work then that’s a very, very important consideration.
“And it is safe to get into a Covid-secure workplace and people should understand that and that is our guidance.”
Mr Johnson said the Health and Safety Executive would “come down hard” on workplaces that did not adhere to social distancing guidelines.
For Labour, shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth criticised the manner of the government’s announcements over the past 24 hours, but added: “On the principle of the decision that has been made, yes we support these restrictions, because this virus is on the increase and we’ve got to get on top of it to save lives.”
Acting leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Ed Davey said the communication of new coronavirus restrictions over recent days had been “woefully incompetent”, adding: “It is clear businesses and individuals will need further financial support from the government. By not only ending the furlough scheme, but the financial support for all those shielding, millions of people are faced with risking their health in returning to work when it isn’t safe or not being able to put food on the table.
“If ministers are to stop the spread of the virus, they need to step up support and sort out their messaging. The consequences otherwise will be devastating.”