Downing Street is considering whether to reduce the maximum permitted size for social gatherings in England following a sudden rise in coronavirus cases, and warnings that people have “relaxed too much” in their precautions.
No 10 is looking at the current guidelines, which allow up to 30 people to meet outdoors, whether in a public outdoor space, or in a garden, to see whether the limits should be reduced, a source said.
No new numbers have been decided, and a decision is not expected immediately, they added.
While up to 30 people can gather outdoors, inside homes the limit remains just two households or support bubbles,
Adding to the worries about a potential resurgence in the virus, the head of testing for NHS test and trace said on Tuesday that there was currently a shortage of laboratory capacity to process tests.
There have been complaints about people being sent long distances for tests, or being unable to book one, whether at an outside site, or being sent a home test.
“Can I please offer my heartfelt apologies to anyone who cannot get a Covid test at present,” Sarah-Jane Marsh tweeted. “All of our testing sites have capacity, which is why they don’t look overcrowded, its our laboratory processing that is the critical pinch-point. We are doing all we can to expand quickly.”
She added: “We have additional NHS, lighthouse, university and partner labs all due to open up imminently and we are also expanding the use of non-laboratory based tests. The testing team work on this 18 hours a day, seven days a week. We recognise the country is depending on us.”
It comes after the UK recorded 2,948 daily confirmed cases of Covid-19, according to government data published on Monday, the second biggest 24-hour rise since May, and the second consecutive day of near-3,000 figures.
New case numbers had been at about 1,000 a day for most of August, but have increased sharply in recent days. Britain’s testing capacity has also increased since the peak of the first wave earlier this year.
In a statement released late on Monday, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, called for more vigilance over Covid transmission from the public.
“People have relaxed too much,” he said. “Now is the time for us to re-engage and realise that this is a continuing threat to us.
“It’s all very well saying that hospital admissions and deaths are at a very low level in the UK, which is true, but if you look further into the European Union, you can see that where case numbers rise initially in the younger parts of the population, they do, in turn, filter through and start to give elevated rates of disease and hospital admissions in the older age groups, and we know that that then becomes a serious public health problem.
“That’s my concern, that if we don’t get on top of this, if people don’t start to take this seriously again, then there is a risk that that’s where we end up.”
Earlier in the day, the health secretary, Matt Hancock said younger people, especially those in better-off areas, should remain observant of distancing rules if the UK was to avoid a wider return of the virus, as seen in Spain and France.
While local lockdowns have been mainly concentrated in poorer areas, Hancock said this had now changed. “The recent increase we have seen in the last few days is more broadly spread,” he said. “It’s actually among more affluent younger people where we have seen the rise.”
In the seven days to 7 September, there were 21.3 cases per 100,000 people, and a total of 14,227. This means the UK’s weekly rate of new coronavirus cases has now risen above 20 per 100,000, the threshold at which the government considers imposing quarantine restrictions on travellers arriving from countries abroad.