Boris Johnson was on Wednesday night drawing up plans for tough restrictions on pubs and restaurants across the north of England as the Treasury finalised a new package of coronavirus support for the stricken hospitality industry.
The prime minister was expected to follow Scotland’s lead and announce new lockdown restrictions to curb soaring infection rates across swaths of the north, including Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, on Wednesday introduced new closures and restrictions on pubs and restaurants across the nation’s densely populated central belt for 16 days from Friday.
Ms Sturgeon said licensed premises other than hotels in an area including Edinburgh and Glasgow would have to close, while cafés that did not sell alcohol would shut by 6pm.
But while surging coronavirus infection rates across the north of England needed addressing immediately, government officials said London and other less-affected regions were not yet in line for sweeping new restrictions.
A decision by senior ministers to tighten restrictions in the north of England’s hospitality sector is expected by the weekend and could take effect on Monday.
Ministers are also putting the finishing touches to a three-tier alert system under which areas will face different types of restrictions: in the top tier hospitality and some other businesses with close social contact would close.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, gave a clue to government thinking when he said: “Outside your household and socialising between households, the highest place in incidence of likely transmission, measured by where people have contacts, is unfortunately hospitality. Now obviously that finding is not good news in terms of the policy action we have to take for that sector.”
The announcement of further limits on trading hours for Scottish pubs and bars came shortly after Greene King, which runs more than 2,700 pubs across the UK, said it planned to shut 79 of its sites, of which a third would be permanently closed.
In the UK on Wednesday there were 14,162 coronavirus cases reported and 508 patients admitted to hospital — the highest number since early June.
Charlie Bean, a member of the Office for Budget Responsibility’s policymaking committee, said the resurgence of Covid-19 cases was likely to undermine the strong recovery in the economy since the summer, when UK output rose from 25 per cent below pre-pandemic levels to about 10 per cent below.
“You certainly might expect that with heightened risks of catching the virus, consumers are going to be more wary about going to restaurants, bars, shops even if they’re open. So I think it is reasonable to suggest there will be some hiatus in the recovery,” Sir Charlie said.
The new Scottish measures provoked anguish in the hospitality industry. “[It’s] devastating for an industry that’s worked its arse off to provide a Covid safe environment and keep its team employed,” tweeted restaurateur and celebrity chef Nick Nairn.
Ms Sturgeon justified the ban on pubs serving alcohol, saying inebriation could “affect people’s willingness to physically distance”. She added that the move eliminated “one of the key opportunities the virus has to jump from household to household”.
The first minister promised £40m in government support for affected businesses but, under pressure from opposition politicians to give details, said this would be worked out over the next few days.
The Scottish Chambers of Commerce accused the Scottish government of a “complete and utter lack of consultation with business” on measures that would threaten jobs.
“These measures will sound the death knell for businesses across the hospitality sector, especially pubs and bars,” said Liz Cameron, SCC chief executive.
Ms Sturgeon said that while the prevalence of coronavirus in Scotland was only about 13 per cent of its peak level in March, the number of infections was growing about 7 per cent a day and “without action” was likely to return to peak levels by the end of this month.
Additional reporting by Alice Hancock, Chris Giles and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.