The U.K’s coronavirus caseload surged amid growing anger over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy for dealing with the pandemic.
Some 17,540 new cases were logged Thursday — a rise of more than 3,000 from Wednesday. Public Health England Medical Director Yvonne Doyle warned of a “definite and sustained” increase in cases and hospitalizations. “The trend is clear, and it is very concerning,” she said in a statement.
Earlier Thursday, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, met with politicians from northern England and the Midlands to stress the sharp uptick in the virus. He was joined by Health Minister Edward Argar in the virtual meeting for more than 100 cross-party members of Parliament on Thursday, two people familiar with matter said.
The sobering data come as Johnson’s team is preparing to announce new restrictions for the worst-hit parts of the country from Monday, potentially including the closing of restaurants and bars. The premier has warned that virus restrictions are likely to be in place for at least another six months.
In other developments:
- Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is set on Friday to award coronavirus grants totaling 103 million pounds ($133 million) to bail out 445 cultural organizations, including castles and cathedrals
- Test and trace data Thursday showed tracers reached just 68.6% of the close contacts of positive cases in the week ending Sept. 30, down from 72.5% and significantly fewer than the target of 80%
- Data Friday from the British Retail Consortium laid bare the effect of virus restrictions on shopping habits, with footfall in shopping centers and high streets down more than 30% in September from a year earlier.
- Labour Party leader Keir Starmer wrote in the Telegraph that Johnson has “lost control” of the virus and his approach to local lockdowns is causing “confusion, chaos and unfairness.”
- The National Health Service launched a campaign to urge people to get cancer symptoms and other complaints checked out, and not be put off doing so by fears of catching coronavirus.
- The Times reported that a new furlough program for areas in strict local lockdowns will pay workers 2/3 of their wages.
Johnson faces growing anger from members of his own party who complain about restrictions on civil liberties and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of new measures. Meanwhile, local leaders say they haven’t been consulted on new rules.
“I will not accept the government just imposing restrictions, these decisions upon us, briefing them to newspapers late at night,” Andy Burnham, the mayor for Greater Manchester, told the BBC’s “Question Time” program late Thursday. “They need to treat the people of the north of England with more respect.”
Burnham said he would “use whatever means I can to challenge” any proposed closure of pubs and restaurants if there isn’t “full support for the people and the businesses affected.”
Last week ministers promised lawmakers will get a vote on any “significant” restrictions on a national level, but it’s not yet clear whether next week’s measures in northern England will fall into that category. It’s also not clear if Whitty’s meeting will placate potential rebels ahead of a vote Tuesday on the national 10 p.m. curfew for pubs and restaurants.
The meeting with Whitty was an opportunity for the government to persuade its MPs to back the measures in Parliament. The chief medical officer showed MPs slides setting out the rise in hospitalizations, particularly in the northwest and northeast of England, and pointed to unpublished data that demonstrates pubs and restaurants are driving the infection rate.
One of the charts shown to MPs highlighted that an estimated 30% of exposure to coronavirus is in pubs, bars, restaurants and cafes — far exceeding the level of exposure in supermarkets and shops.
Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, told reporters that “early data” showed the hospitality sector driving infection rates. The government has pledged to keep schools and as many workplaces as possible open. That makes pubs and restaurants a likely target for tougher restrictions — even though the government spent August trying to encourage Britons to eat out.
Thursday’s new caseload is the highest daily tally yet, discounting Sunday’s data, which included more than 15,000 cases that had been mistakenly omitted in previous days.
“We are at a perilous moment in the course of this pandemic,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Thursday in a speech. “Our strategy is simple: suppress the virus, supporting the economy, education and the NHS — until a vaccine can make us safe.”