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Wednesday June 23rd, 2021 5:01AM

English warned limits on gatherings may last til Christmas

By The Associated Press
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LONDON (AP) — New limits on social gatherings in England to six people are set to stay in place for the “foreseeable future,” potentially until or even through Christmas, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Wednesday.

Hancock said the new limit for both indoor and outdoor gatherings, which will come into force and be enforceable by law from Monday, will provide “more clarity” to people and should help keep a lid on a recent sharp spike in new coronavirus cases.

One of the reasons for the pick-up in cases is that many people have been confused over the past few months as lockdown restrictions have been eased, notably over how they relate to gatherings both in and out of the home. Scientists say a clear message is crucial in containing pandemics.

Though there are exemptions, such as for schools, workplaces and “life events” like funerals and weddings, the government is clearly hoping that the new limits will be easily understood and followed.

“It's super simple,” Hancock told BBC radio.

Those flouting the rules could be fined — 100 pounds ($130) for a first offense, up to a potential 3,200 pounds.

Late Tuesday, the British government banned gatherings of more than six people in England, following the spike that has been largely blamed on party-going young adults disregarding social distancing rules.

The other nations of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have not introduced any limits yet.

The government said the new limit was needed after the number of daily laboratory-confirmed positive cases hit nearly 3,000 on Sunday. The figure dipped Tuesday to 2,460.

Hancock said he hoped that the new rules, coupled with local actions being taken in a number of towns and regions, will “turn this around" before Christmas.

“Our first line of defense is social distancing so this will be in place for the foreseeable future,” he said.

Hancock said the new limitations on gatherings will be complemented by tighter rules for the hospitality sector. He said pubs and restaurants will be legally obliged to take the contact details of every customer for purposes of the government's test and trace program.

More details are set to be announced later Wednesday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts a press briefing after taking weekly questions in the House of Commons.

Johnson’s Conservative government has faced strong criticism for its mixed messages since it started easing the coronavirus lockdown in late spring. It spent much of the summer encouraging people to eat out to help the hard-pressed hospitality sector and is now urging workers to return to their offices to help hard-hit businesses in city centers.

In a further attempt to provide clarity, the government launched a new public information campaign to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, particularly in indoor environments during winter. The “Hands. Face. Space” campaign, which will run across all media, is intended to hammer home the message to the public to carry on with preventive measures in the months ahead.

“Following these simple steps could make a significant difference in reducing the transmission of COVID-19 and help protect you and your friends, colleagues and family from the virus,” said Chris Whitty, the government's chief medical officer.

The U.K. has Europe’s worst death toll from the virus, with nearly 41,600 deaths within 28 days of testing positive. The actual toll is believed to be far higher as the government tally does not include those who died without having been tested.

The spike in U.K. cases follows big daily case increases in Spain and France, both of whom have seen rising numbers of COVID-19 patients being hospitalized. Spain saw an average of 8,800 new cases a day over the weekend, and France has been recording over 5,000 a day.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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