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U.K. Government Enforces New Coronavirus Restrictions


The U.K. government is enforcing new restrictions across England today as the coronavirus begins to spread again. There were 3,300 new cases on Sunday. This move comes after a lockdown-free summer in which officials brought the virus under control and the number of deaths plummeted. Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The government will forbid more than six people to gather indoors or out. Here's Prime Minister Boris Johnson.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I wish that we did not have to take this step. But as your prime minister, I must do what is necessary to stop the spread of the virus and to save lives.

LANGFITT: Offices, pubs, restaurants and places of worship will all remain open. But people can only gather in those places in groups of no more than six. Devi Sridhar, who researches global health governance at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, thinks she knows why the government is pursuing a seemingly contradictory policy.

DEVI SRIDHAR: It's the government running out of ideas. They want to keep the economy going, right? They don't want to put restrictions in that'll limit economic activity that might actually lead to unemployment. Already the U.K. has taken such a severe hit. But on the flip side, they know that they need to do something.

JOHN LISTER: I don't know how much people will actually pay attention to it.

LANGFITT: John Lister (ph) works for a charitable organization and lives in south London. He's often found the government's messaging confusing.

LISTER: At the start of the first few months of the lockdown, people were very much following every word of what the government was saying. But I think people have just lost complete faith in what the government is doing.

LANGFITT: The government put the country on lockdown in late March and eventually brought the virus under control. Britain slowly began to emerge from lockdown beginning in May. This summer, cases fell to as few as about 350 a day. And as British media reported, it seemed as if everybody headed off on vacation or down to the pub.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Thousands flocked to the beach on the hottest day of the year.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: They gathered early at the Sally Port Inn in Portsmouth. After more than a hundred days, they got quite a thirst.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: During holiday, from July 6, British tourists will be allowed to travel to European countries.

LANGFITT: Devi Sridhar of the University of Edinburgh says the lockdown not only reduced cases but also deaths. For instance, the country just recorded five yesterday. Deaths fell in part because physicians have figured out ways to handle the virus.

SRIDHAR: So definitely, we've had better treatments, dexamethasone, for example. The steroid can improve survival for very severe patients. So we're getting much better at saving people who are, you know, critically ill.

LANGFITT: But the summer party is over. The virus reproduction rate in the U.K. is now between one and 1.2. If the rate rises above 1, the virus spreads exponentially.

GREENE: We're getting more and more economic and social activity going and, of course, more people interacting. So the number of contacts people have has expanded rapidly with the back-to-school push, back-to-work push and people, you know, returning from holidays from Spain or Greece to the U.K. and then setting off new clusters.

LANGFITT: Sridhar says after a summer where people could pretty much do what they wanted, some have developed a false sense of confidence.

SRIDHAR: And, I think, now there is this feeling - and especially among younger people - the pandemic is over and we need to get on with our lives. Actually, we're nowhere near the end of this. This still has a way to run. And we need to figure out, as a country, how to move forward within this global world.

LANGFITT: Over the weekend, many held parties here to celebrate the last time, perhaps, for a long time, that groups of more than six will be able to gather together legally.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.