Boris Johnson confirmed in his coronavirus press conference yesterday that gatherings will be restricted to a maximum of six people from Monday onwards. This is the legal number allowed to meet (with a few exceptions), and those who fail to comply will face fines or even arrest. In one way, this isn't that much of a change to what's allowed at present – the guidelines already stated gatherings ought not to go above six. But the move to make gatherings above six against the law, is a substantial toughening up. It marks a shift in the government's coronavirus handling.
This approach is much more stick than carrot. Looking ahead to the winter, Johnson and his team are not relying on good will among the public to comply with the rules. While Johnson said it broke his heart to have to insist on new restrictions, he is now adopting a more authoritarian approach. There is a fresh focus on ways to enforce the rules on people who do not comply. One aspect of this is the introduction of 'Covid secure' marshals to check on pubs and restaurants.
As well as local lockdowns, the Prime Minister hinted at more national measures in the coming months. The government is keeping 'options of national action in the future' on the table. One of the more extreme measures being discussed by ministers is a national curfew. Part of what is driving the thinking behind these measures is worries about students socialising. A snap YouGov poll found 62 per cent of those surveyed would support a 10pm curfew. However, it would present a huge challenge both in terms of personal freedoms and the effect on the economy.
The fact that such measures are under discussion shows that even if Johnson manages to keep his word and avoid a second national lockdown, the British public will be under significant restrictions for some time. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty gave a sense of the timeline at the press conference when he said 'the period between now and spring is going to be difficult'. One government official suggests 'difficult' is an understatement.