The UK government is set to change the country’s social distancing laws after a rapid surge in coronavirus cases emerged this month.
From Monday (14 September), people will only be allowed to gather in groups of up to six people, inside or out. Until recently, gatherings were limited to a maximum of 30 people, and could be held for things like community events. Now, however, the maximum rule of six will be put into law.
It comes after almost 8,500 positive tests were recorded in the last three days.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said this morning that it would also become compulsory for pubs and restaurants to take customers’ details for the test and trace programme. Fines can be levied against venue owners who do not comply with the rules.
“We’re also going to enforce more strictly the rules around hospitality, including for instance you need to give your contact details when you go to hospitality, which has so far been voluntary,” he said.
While the vast majority of bars, restaurants and pubs appear to be following the government’s track and trace policy, many haven’t. Pub group and brewery Samuel Smiths publicly declared it did not require customers to leave their contact details, while an investigation by the Scottish Sunday Mail found a handful of Wetherspoon’s pubs were struggling to comply with track and trace. Despite this, the pub group has registered 5,742,125 check-ins from punters across its estate since track and trace was implemented.
“Large swathes of the hospitality industry have followed [track and trace],” Hancock said. “Some have chosen not to, so we’re going to make that compulsory as well.”
A spokesperson for Samuel Smith’s did not immediately respond to our request for comment.
Emma McClarkin the chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) was surprised by the announcement, insisting the pub sector has been “fully playing it’s part” to help contain the virus.
Hancock didn’t rule out the possibility of a second lockdown, and although he played it down, it is possible restrictions could be in place over the Christmas period, jeopardising what should be a lucrative time of year for the hospitality sector.
“I really hope we can turn this round before Christmas. I think that, in a pandemic, Christmas is a long way off. Three months is a long time in a pandemic and I very much hope this strong rule, together with the local action we’ve taken in places like Bolton … I very hope much therefore this can work to do that by Christmas,” he said.
The rules have been simplified in part to help police forces break up larger gatherings, but McClarkin said that making the rules more clear-cut could scare members of the public, and make them less inclined to go out for food and drink.
“This announcement came as a surprise, but it is clear that the Government are concerned about the recent rise in COVID cases,” she said.
“As one of the few sectors participating in track and trace the pub sector has been fully playing it’s part in ensuring people follow guidance to contain the spread of the virus up to this point and we will continue to do so.”
“The impact of these new announcements can have a cooling effect on public confidence. This restriction comes at a delicate point in our pub recovery after a steady start this summer. We were already worried about levels of trade moving into Autumn and Winter.”
“Pubs will need more support from Government with continued business rates relief, VAT cuts and flexible furlough, as well as a significant cut in beer duty to help them survive, protect jobs and continue to serve communities. We need the Government to send the clear message that pubs remain open for business and the public should continue to support them.”