Britain faced pressure to act fast to keep a lid on daily new coronavirus infections after a sharp spike across the UK that has been largely blamed on party-going young adults disregarding social distancing rules.
Daily new coronavirus infections have risen sharply recently, dipping today to 2460 after hitting nearly 3000 the previous two days.
The recent spike has stoked speculation that the British Government will soon tighten some restrictions, such as reducing the number of people gathering indoors in England from the current limit of 30.
The BBC, Sky News and ITV reported that social gatherings of more than six people will be illegal in England from Monday. The limit will drop from 30.
It will apply to gatherings indoors and outdoors – including private homes, as well as parks, pubs and restaurants.
Government ministers and scientists took to the airways to urge Britons not to let down their guard.
"We've been able to relax a bit over the summer ... but these latest figures really show us that much as people might like to say 'Oh well, it's gone away' — this hasn't gone away," said Dr Jonathan Van-Tam, the government's deputy chief medical officer.
He said while the rise in infections is "much more marked" among people between 17 and 21, he was concerned about a "more general and creeping geographic trend" across the UK.
"People have relaxed too much," he said. "Now is the time for us to re-engage and realise that this is a continuing threat."
The UK has Europe's worst death toll from the virus, with nearly 41,600 deaths within 28 days of testing positive. The actual toll is believed to be far higher as the government tally does not include those who died without having been tested.
The spike in UK cases follows big daily case increases in Spain and France, both of whom have seen rising numbers of Covid-19 patients being hospitalised. Spain saw an average of 8800 new cases a day over the weekend, and France has been recording over 5000 a day.
The worry is that the UK will also start seeing increases in virus patients being hospitalised and dying.
"While young people are less likely to die from this disease, be in no doubt that they are still at risk," Health Secretary Matt Hancock told MPs, adding that six months after getting infected, some previously fit people are still laid low by chronic fatigue, muscle pain and breathing difficulties.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Government has faced strong criticism for its mixed messages since it started easing the coronavirus lockdown in late spring. It spent much of the summer encouraging people to eat out to help the hard-pressed hospitality sector and is now urging workers to return to their offices to help hard-hit businesses in city centres.
John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said cases are rising, though "not spectacularly," but he's worried about what will happen following the reopening of schools and universities.
"There are big movements afoot in the country and these will inevitably accelerate transmission," he told Sky News. "I'm not sure we have to go back to work when we can work from home."
The government has also been criticized for testing problems, prompting an apology from Sarah-Jane Marsh, director for the National Health Service's Test and Trace programme.
"All of our testing sites have capacity, which is why they don't look overcrowded. It's our laboratory processing that is the critical pinch point," she said. "We are doing all we can to expand quickly."
"The testing team work on this 18 hours a day, seven days a week," she said.
Still, the UK is testing tens of thousands more people than it did in the early months of the pandemic. Yesterday, it processed around 175,000 tests.
A local lockdown went into effect today in the Welsh district of Caerphilly. Under the new restrictions, people there will not be allowed to enter or leave the area without a reasonable excuse, everyone over 11 must wear masks in shops and indoor meetings between different households are banned.
Hancock also announced new lockdown restrictions for Bolton in northwest England that has the highest number of per capita coronavirus cases in the UK. Most new cases there involve people between 18 and 49. Among the restrictions, Hancock said restaurants, cafes and pubs in Bolton now can only offer takeaway services.