As rules on social gatherings in the UK are tightened, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned about the need to act now in order to avoid a second lockdown.
Rules limiting gatherings to just six people were introduced this week and mark the first significant reverse step in the Westminster Government’s move out of lockdown since restrictions began easing in May.
The rules came as cases across the country began to rise steeply, with the UK recording close to 3,000 new positive cases on September 10.
Twenty days on and the number of cases continues to climb with over 7,000 recorded on September 29.
Does this steep rise in cases and reversal of post-lockdown measures mean that the UK is heading for a second strict lockdown?
Why have restrictions been introduced?
From September 14 social gatherings were limited to six people with limited exemptions.
This will apply to indoor and outdoor settings including pubs, cafes and parks, as well as private homes.
Chief Medical Officer Professor Christ Whitty explained that the rules were being introduced due to a spike in cases, during a press briefing on September 9.
He explained that cases had risen “far more rapidly” in the previous week especially among 17 to 21-year-olds.
Local lockdowns have been introduced across the UK with 16.6 million currently under stricter rules than the rest of the country. These local lockdowns don’t amount tothe hard lockdown which was introduced to the whole country in March, however.
Why are cases rising?
The number of positive cases recorded in recent days - well over 2,000 a day - is four times higher than the rate seen in mid-July when the UK was emerging from lockdown, but this comparison is deceptive.
The highest number of recorded cases in the UK took place in Mid-April during the national lockdown with 6,000 cases recorded on a regular basis, but experts suggest that this peak was in fact far higher. Due to a capacity, testing was limited to hospital patients.
Experts at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have suggested that there could have been as many as 100,000 positive cases a day at the end of March.
With the UK’s testing regime now scaled up and far more sophisticated, cases are increasing as a result, but not as drastically as they were in March and April.
Cases have likely risen in recent weeks due to the continued unlocking of the UK’s economy, the reopening of schools and the loosening of restrictions on socialising.
Speaking to LBC Radio, also on September 9, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the rise in cases were largely occurring due to socialising, hence the introduction of restrictions on social gatherings.
What has Boris Johnson said about a second lockdown?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said a second national lockdown was unlikely but refused to rule out such a move during an interview with the Telegraph in July.
The Number 10 Downing Street incumbent told the Telegraph "I can't abandon that tool any more than I would abandon a nuclear deterrent. But it is like a nuclear deterrent, I certainly don't want to use it. And nor do I think we will be in that position again."
Due to advances in the UK’s test and trace programme Mr Johnson believes that a complete shutdown of the country’s economy won’t be necessary.
He said: “we're genuinely able now to look at what's happening in much closer to real-time, to isolate outbreaks and to address them on the spot, and to work with local authorities to contain the problem locally and regionally if we have to.”
However, on Wednesday Mr Johnson, whose tenure as Prime Minister has been defined by a series of U-turns, said that if the public didn’t follow new social distancing restrictions a second national lockdown may be necessary.
Speaking from Number 10 Downing Street, he said: "I want to be absolutely clear, these measures are not another national lockdown. The whole point of them is to avoid a second national lockdown.”
What has First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said?
Speaking in late August Nicola Sturgeon warned the Scottish public that it could be faced with a second complete lockdown over winter if people continue to flout the rules and guidance around Covid-19.
The First Minister urged the public to talk to their family and friends about following the Covid-19 guidance as she said she was feeling a “greater sense of anxiety” around the position of Scotland in regards to the virus compared to the last few months.
She said: “But unless all of us do the right things, that will be very hard to do on a continuous basis over the weeks and months ahead, particularly as we get into winter.
"None of us want to live our lives in this way but by doing that if we keep the virus under control, we are avoiding a much worse outcome which is going back to the more restrictive situation that we saw earlier in the year."
On September 10 the First Minister confirmed that Scotland would also be restricting social gatherings
Despite the rise in cases across the UK the First Minister insisted that Scotland was in a far better position than in March when the first lockdown was introduced out of necessity, but warned against complacency.
She said: “We are in a much better position than in late March. Prevalence of the virus is lower - thanks to the individual sacrifices that so many of you have made for the greater good.We are seeing a rise in new cases, but it is not as rapid as it was earlier in the year.
“And Test & Protect is working well. It is allowing us, even with a rise in cases, to live much more normally than we could under lockdown. So we still have grounds for cautious hope. But we have no grounds for complacency.
“It is vital to do everything we can to stop cases rising further before winter."
What role can testing play?
Perhaps the key to avoiding a second national lockdown is an increased emphasis on testing.
On September 9, Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his “moonshot” plan to increase rapid testing among those who are not experiencing symptoms of the virus.
“In future, in the near future, we want to start using testing to identify people who are negative - who don't have coronavirus and who are not infectious - so we can allow them to behave in a more normal way, in the knowledge they cannot infect anyone else with the virus,” he said.
"And we think, we hope, we believe that new types of test which are simple, quick and scalable will become available.
"They use swabs or saliva and can turn round results in 90 or even 20 minutes.
"Crucially, it should be possible to deploy these tests on a far bigger scale than any country has yet achieved - literally millions of tests processed every single day."
The “moonshot” plan is being piloted in Salford in October and could be key to the UK’s return to normality.