Boris Johnson Raises Specter of New U.K. Lockdown as Virus Reignites

For Boris Johnson, and the country he leads, the grim reality of a prolonged pandemic is finally hitting home: coronavirus remains a threat and restrictions on daily life are here to stay.

Faced with a surge in infections, the British prime minister ditched plans to reopen leisure facilities such as bowling alleys, and canceled trials aimed at getting sports fans back into stadiums. Stricter social-distancing measures were imposed on large areas of northern England, and Johnson said police will enforce new laws requiring people to wear face masks from Aug. 8.

U.K.’s Johnson Puts Brakes on Easing Lockdown to Quell Virus

In the view of Johnson’s senior medical adviser, Chris Whitty, efforts to open up the economy have now gone as far as they safely can.

“We must be willing to react to the first signs of trouble,” Johnson said, warning that across the country and in parts of Europe, the virus is on the rise again. “We cannot fool ourselves that we are exempt.”

Criticism

Fooling himself and reacting too slowly are the two charges most often leveled at Johnson over the way he handled the first peak in the pandemic earlier this year. The U.K. suffered the highest death toll in Europe and the government was accused of waiting too long to impose a lockdown, while Johnson himself was left fighting for his life in intensive care after contracting Covid-19.

He cannot afford to get it wrong again.

The tension for Johnson’s team remains between protecting lives and preventing an economic catastrophe. Government economists say the U.K. is at risk of the worst recession in 300 years, while the OECD has said the country faces being one of the worst-hit of all developed nations.

Boris Johnson Kept on Working, But Then the Virus Took Over

With that in mind, despite scrapping plans to ease restrictions further, Johnson is still pushing ahead with efforts to get workers to return to their offices — a measure seen as key to saving high street stores and restaurants.

Back to Work

From Saturday, official guidelines in England will no longer be that people should do their jobs from home if they can, but instead should return to work. And throughout August, the government will subsidize people eating meals in restaurants, pubs and cafes in an effort to bolster the flagging hospitality industry.

But much of the British public remains keener on taking precautions than risks. Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed a growing number of people are willing to wear face coverings, with 57% of adults strongly supporting making masks mandatory in shops. Only 34% of people said they would feel comfortable eating indoors at a restaurant.

The premier has put new quarantine rules on travelers returning from European countries including Spain, amid concerns that tourists could import the disease back into Britain. On Friday, Johnson urged his compatriots to holiday in the U.K., saying he had spent his own happiest vacations on British beaches — “bucket and spade jobs.”

Turmoil

Still, there are growing warnings of an impending economic crisis. The government’s fiscal watchdog said unemployment could surge to 12% at the end of this year and, under a pessimistic scenario, could peak at 13.2% early in 2021. Both outcomes would see more than four million people out of work.

For individual businesses, the painkiller of state support is beginning to wear off. The government’s furlough program — paying wages for workers whose jobs would be at risk — ends in October, and from Saturday employers must contribute toward pension and national insurance costs for staff covered by the plan.

After the government took a snap judgment to hit northern England with new curbs, business groups warned the impact on public confidence will be severe.

“These announcements — made at short notice — will be a hammer blow to business and consumer confidence,” said Claire Walker at theBritish Chambers of Commerce. “Many firms were just starting to get back on their feet.”

— With assistance by David Goodman, Joe Mayes, Libby Cherry, and Alex Morales

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