U.K. at ‘Critical Point’ in Virus Surge With London at Risk

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Britain is at a “critical point” in the coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be told on Monday, as concern mounts that a second lockdown may be needed to stop the renewed spread of the disease.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty plans to sound the alert, saying U.K. data are heading in the “wrong direction,” according to a preview of remarks prepared for a public briefing.

The warning comes amid expectations that local restrictions could soon be extended to London. Mayor Sadiq Khan will recommend tightened rules for the capital on Monday, LBC radio reported.

Whitty’s comments underscore the balancing act facing Johnson’s government, which is trying to keep infections under control without inflicting further damage on an economy that slumped more than any other developed country during the pandemic.

With daily cases of the disease at the highest level since May, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Sunday that national restrictions could be reimposed unless people comply with rules that include limiting gatherings to six people.

Fines Threatened

The government reinforced that message by announcing that people in England who refuse an order to self-isolate could be fined 10,000 pounds ($12,917). A new legal duty requires people to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus, or are traced as a close contact, starting Sept. 28.

The government reported 3,899 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday following 4,422 on Saturday, fueling concern that the U.K. could follow the paths of Spain and France, where hospitalizations are rising again.

Whitty and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance will outline potential scenarios as Britain moves into a “very challenging winter,” showing how the second wave of infections being experienced in other countries could be replicated in the U.K.

The U.K. test-and-trace system is under strain and local restrictions in place in the north and midlands are expected to be extended to London, where infection rates are the highest in the country after the northwest. Asked if London office workers could be asked to work from home this week, Hancock told Times Radio: “Well, I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Hancock once again refused to rule out reports that ministers are considering a two-week national lockdown in October as a virus “circuit breaker,” but insisted country-wide measures were a “last line of defense.”

Johnson is anxious to avoid a second national lockdown after the first one saw the economy shrink by over a fifth and pushed government debt above 2 trillion pounds for the first time.

The crisis has already cost almost 700,000 employees their jobs and the fear is that unemployment will surge when Treasury wage subsidies for millions of furloughed workers end next month, as currently planned by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak.

Sunak has indicated that companies need further support to prevent large-scale business collapses and job losses. The chancellor is preparing to extend four loan programs that have already backed 53 billion pounds of borrowings by companies through state guarantees, the Financial Times reported. The Treasury declined to comment.

The opposition Labour Party wants help to continue for the worst-affected sectors, with Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds on Monday due to call for a Job Recovery Scheme as part of a package of measures to help the economy.

Under the proposal, businesses in key sectors that bring back more staff on reduced hours rather than cut jobs would receive government wage support.

Johnson’s office on Sunday set fines for breaching self-isolation rules to start at 1,000 pounds, in line with the penalty for breaking quarantine after international travel. They could reach 10,000 pounds for repeat offenses and “egregious” cases.

Those on lower incomes who face a loss of earnings as a result of going into quarantine will be eligible for a one-time support payment of 500 pounds.

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