All social gatherings of more than six people will be banned in England, under new limits to be announced by U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday, as coronavirus cases grow.
At a press conference, the premier will confirm that police will have new powers to disperse and fine any group larger than six people meeting indoors or outdoors from Sept. 14. That marks a tightening of the current rules, under which police can break up gatherings of more than 30.
There will be exceptions for people getting together for work, weddings and funerals as well as for organized sports - but parties in pubs and restaurants, and gatherings in public spaces will all be hit by the new limits.
"We need to act now to stop the virus spreading," Johnson is expected to say, according to an email from his office. "We are simplifying and strengthening the rules on social contact - making them easier to understand and for the police to enforce."
The move comes amid mounting concern in the government that COVID-19 cases are rising rapidly again, after restrictions were eased and the public was encouraged to return to work and socialize.
It is potentially a blow to the U.K.'s economy, which is already facing its deepest recession for at least 100 years. The latest limits will affect the hospitality sector in particular, which the government tried to boost with discounts for dining out during August.
The rise in cases in the U.K., which has seen around 3,000 confirmed daily infections in recent days, follows similar increases in recent weeks in other European countries.
Ministers hope that acting now to limit social gatherings will slow the spread of the disease as they aim to avoid another national lockdown, such as the one imposed in March that has plunged Britain into its deepest recession on record.
Under the measures, police will first try to encourage groups larger than six people to disperse. If they refuse, they will face a 100-pound ($130) fine, that will double on each further repeat offense up to 3,200 pounds.
"It is absolutely critical that people now abide by these rules and remember the basics - washing your hands, covering your face, keeping space from others and getting a test if you have symptoms."
British officials worry that the U.K. is going to follow Spain and France, where hospitalizations have begun to increase. The government is launching a new public information campaign to reinforce the need for social distancing and basic hygiene.
A localized approach has taken hold. On Tuesday, ministers announced tightening of restrictions in the northern English town of Bolton. These included shorter opening hours for pubs in the area.
One concern for ministers is that the rules are being flouted by young people, who may not be at great risk themselves but who then pass coronavirus on to their more vulnerable relations.
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