'It is like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis', says No 10 source on PM's Covid-19 options

Night-time curfews or a three-week shutdown of bars and restaurants? What's the best way for Boris Johnson to tackle the second wave?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a visit to the Jenner Institute in Oxford on Friday
Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures during a visit to the Jenner Institute in Oxford on Friday Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Pool

A three-week shutdown of the hospitality industry, a short, sharp five-day 'circuit-break' or a traffic-light system which divides the country into three levels of risk zones are among the options being considered Prime Minister by Boris Johnson and his team at No 10.

The Prime Minister has been stung into action by rising cases of coronavirus and a private warning from Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Officer, and Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, that unlike in Germany and Sweden, Britons need more enforcement to comply with lockdown rules.

A senior No 10 source said Mr Johnson had to weigh up the need to control coronavirus cases, with any effect on existing services for NHS patients such as cancer sufferers and protecting the economy from more shutdowns, as he sets out how to manage the response to the virus in the next six months.

Adopting Mr Johnson's classical allusions, the source said: "It is like sailing between Scylla and Charybdis – he [the PM] is the person who has to navigate how to get there." 

In Greek mythology, Scylla is a legendary monster who lives on one side of a narrow channel of water, opposite her counterpart Charybdis. The two sides of the strait are within an arrow's range of each other – so close that sailors attempting to avoid Charybdis would pass dangerously close to Scylla, and vice versa.

The PM's options

Curfews

Night-time curfews could be adopted as a way of further limiting contact between groups of people, especially the young, in town and city centres.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC that under a short 'circuit break' lockdown to curb rising infections, hospitality venues would be closed to allow schools and workplaces to remain open, noting that the "vast majority"of transmission takes place in "social settings".

Already a curfew in Bolton has seen pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues being limited to takeaways and closing to customers between 10pm and 5am.

Bars and restaurants Newcastle have been told to shut at 10pm as part of new restrictions to fight a surge in cases.

Professor Kevin Fenton, Public Health England's national director for health and wellbeing, said that similar restrictions could be imposed in the capital to avoid a return to a more stringent lockdown.

He said: “In some areas which have seen resurgence there have been limits placed on the amount of time you can spend socialising. In some it might be local curfews so you’re not out drinking until the wee hours of the morning.

“By limiting that you also limit the amount of time people are spending in close contact with others.”

Tougher enforcement of the 'rule of six'

Mr Johnson is considering increasing fines for anyone who breaks the 'rule of six' which limits social interactions to just five other people from Monday September 14.

No 10 is worried about early evidence that the 'rule of six' is being flouted by large numbers of people.

One source said: "There is some early evidence that the 'rule of six' is not being followed properly."

One idea is to increase fines for rule breaches from the current £100 to possibly as much as £1,000, mirroring the new fines for breaching self-isolation rules.

One source said: "The public has been fantastic in following the guidance, but we are worried that the 'rule of six' is being breached, particularly by young people which is why we will look at harder enforcement measures, such as increasing fines to ensure compliance."

Fears about rising infection rates among younger people across the UK has forced the Government into tighter lockdown restrictions, particularly in the North of England Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Europe

Limiting social circles to a household bubble

People across large parts of the North East and North West of England are currently banned from meeting people who are not a part of their household or support bubble.

That rule could be extended as part of new national restrictions on social contacts.

Government advisers fear people have begun to regard the 'rule of six', that allows as many as six different households to meet indoors or outdoors, as long as the individual limit is not breached, as a daily target.

Dr Adam Kucharski, associate professor in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: “With fixed numbers people see it as more of a quota than a limit – they think: ‘I can fill it every single day’… There is not a magic number that makes it not safe or safe.”

As a result further limits may be imposed on how many other people individuals can meet at one time. Alternatively these meetings may be allowed to continue if they are offset by fewer contacts in other circumstances.

“If people were stricter about self-isolating then limits on social contacts could be increased,” said Dr Kucharski.

More working from home

The Government had been on the verge of a major publicity campaign urging people to return to their offices until the recent surge in cases forced them to put it on ice.

Now it may even revert to telling more people to work from home if they can do so. A survey has found that more employees are now commuting than at any stage of pandemic.

Nearly two thirds of working adults have returned to commuting to work, according to latest Government figures, although many are only doing so part-time.

According to the Office for National Statistics this was the first time that the proportion of working adults travelling to work had risen to more than 60 per cent since the weekly survey began in early April.

However, the effect of that may be to increase close social contact and drive up the infection rate.

The Welsh Government has already said it wants people to continue to work from home, even into the longer term as a way of not only stemming the spread of the virus, but reducing congestion and pollution, and improving work-life balance.

Deputy Minister for Transport and Economy, Lee Waters, said: "The UK government instruction for everyone to go back to the office is not one we are repeating in Wales. We believe many people will want to continue to work remotely in the longer term and this could be a step-change in the way we work in Wales."

But the employers' organisation the CBI has warned city centres could become "ghost towns" if ministers do not do more to encourage staff back to the office.

Changes to 'organised sports' rules

Organised team sports carried out in a Covid-19-secure way, with guidance issued by a sports governing body, are currently allowed to have more than six participants.

This saw the restart of Premier League football, rugby and cricket, played in empty stadiums.

The Government would be reluctant to reimpose a ban on professional sport, but plans to allow even a small number of spectators into venues from October 1 could be scrapped.