Boris Johnson has warned that families are unlikely to be able to gather in numbers at Christmas and has ordered police to arrest people socialising in groups of more than six.
Normal life is unlikely to resume before the spring with the prime minister pinning his hopes on routine daily testing to give people a “passport to mingle”.
The chief medical officer warned of a long period when people would not be able to meet in groups of more than six, saying it could last for up to six months as the weather turns cold.
After the “rule of six” comes into force on Monday, marshals will patrol city centres to break up large groups and families. Mr Johnson said: “Anyone breaking the rules risks being dispersed, fined and possibly arrested”.
With cases rising across the country Mr Johnson said the guidance had become “complicated and confusing”. He defended introducing a ban on meetings of more than six people instead of scientific advisers’ preferred restrictions based on no more than two households mixing.
Infection rates are highest in people aged 19-21 at 55 per 100,000 compared with a national average of 20 per cent with the lowest rates in people in their 70s, according to data presented at a Downing Street press conference.
More than 5 per cent of tests are now positive in the 17-21 group, twice the rate of a few weeks ago, suggesting a potentially large number of undetected infections.
Mr Johnson said a clampdown was needed to stop Britain following France’s rapid exponential growth, describing the measures as a “stitch in time saves nine” approach.
He apologised to families who are now banned from meeting each other saying “it breaks my heart” but insisted “I must do what is necessary to stop the spread of the virus and to save lives”.
He warned of “stronger enforcement of the rules”, including a legal requirement on pubs and restaurants to collect phone numbers for contact tracing.
The rule of six “will be set out in law and it will be enforced by the police — anyone breaking the rules risks being dispersed, fined and possibly arrested,” he said.
“Covid secure marshals” will also be recruited to ensure social distancing in town centres and Mr Johnson hinted at further local curfews, saying he would “restrict the opening hours of premises, initially in some local areas”.
Although the measures are the most serious restrictions since the roll back of lockdown began in May, Mr Johnson said: “These measures are not a second national lockdown — the whole point of them is to avoid a second national lockdown. By bearing down on social contact and improving enforcement, we can keep schools and businesses open, in the knowledge they are Covid secure.”
With a vaccine unlikely before next year Mr Johnson talked of “an alternative plan which could allow life to return closer to normality” based on mass testing giving people a “passport to mingle”.
Pilots begin in Salford next week of testing people before allowing them to enter theatres and stadiums. Mr Johnson said he ultimately hoped for routine daily pregnancy style tests for everyone every day.
“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.
“We are hopeful this approach will be widespread by the spring and, if everything comes together, it may be possible even for challenging sectors like theatres to have life much closer to normal before Christmas.”
After Mr Johnson said at his last Downing Street press conference in July that he hoped for life to return to normal by Christmas, today he was less optimistic, saying: “I’m still hopeful that in many ways we could be able to get some aspects of our lives back to normal by Christmas” but said there was no guarantee.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, warned that “the period between now and spring is going to be difficult” as the virus spread more easily in colder weather.
Professor Whitty said that “people shouldn’t just see this [restriction] as a very short-term thing saying it “may not last for many months but it’s very unlikely to be just over in two or three weeks”.
It is understood he favours a review after three months but believes the rules might be necessary for the next six months.