A series of tougher measures have been imposed in Bolton to stem a surge in Covid-19 cases, including restaurants and pubs being restricted to takeaways, as well as late-night limits on opening hours.
Current guidance that people cannot socialise outside of their households in the Greater Manchester town will also be made law, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced in a statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday.
There are 120 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 of the population in Bolton – which has already been under stricter lockdown measures – meaning it has the highest rate in the country, Hancock said.
The rise is “partly due to socialising by people in their 20s and 30s”, Hancock warned, explaining that contact tracers had identified a number of pubs where the virus had spread “significantly”.
Unveiling the measures that will be imposed immediately in Bolton, Hancock told the Commons: “We will restrict all hospitality to takeaways only, and will introduce a late-night restriction of operating hours, which will mean all venues will be required to close from 10pm to 5am.
“We’ll introduce urgently further measures that put the current guidance that people cannot socialise outside their household into law.”
It comes after Bolton council said on Saturday it was introducing stricter measures “with immediate effect”, asking people not to mix with other households in any setting, either indoors or outdoors, and to only use public transport for essential purposes.
Hancock also said visitor restrictions will be imposed to care homes in Bolton.
Plans to ease lockdown restrictions in parts of Greater Manchester, including Bolton, were scrapped last week following a government U-turn after concern over a resurgence in coronavirus cases.
Meanwhile, Hancock stressed that the government is working “flat out” to expand testing capacity nationwide, amid concerns that the regime is unravelling under the pressure of demand with some people asked to travel long distances to get checked for Covid.
Earlier on Tuesday, a senior official at NHS test and trace issued a “heartfelt” apology to people who could not get tests. The director of testing, Sarah-Jane Marsh, tweeted: “All of our testing sites have capacity, which is why they don’t look overcrowded, its [sic] our laboratory processing that is the critical pinch-point. We are doing all we can to expand quickly.”
It comes after the UK on Monday recorded 2,948 daily confirmed cases of Covid-19. It followed nearly 3,000 cases being recorded on Sunday, the second biggest 24-hour rise since May.
The figures prompted England’s deputy chief medical officer, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, to warn on Monday that people had “relaxed too much” over the summer and that the rise in cases was of great concern.
Downing Street has come under fire over concerns it has lost control over the epidemic in the UK. There are concerns that testing centres are struggling to cope with demand, with some people asked to travel hundreds of miles to be tested. Hancock has since said that people will be offered tests within 75 miles but conceded it is “still quite a hike”.
Speaking earlier on Tuesday to the health and social care committee, Hancock suggested it would take the government “a couple of weeks” to resolve the problem of people being unable to access tests.
Asked about Marsh’s tweet and pressed on how soon the issues can be resolved, Hancock told the committee: “In the coming weeks. We are working on it incredibly hard.”
He added: “We’re doing everything that we can. We have had these operational issues that I have talked about, we have had a problem with a couple of contracts and we discussed some of that in the House of Commons.
“But it’s a matter of a couple of weeks until we can get all of that sorted in the short term.”
Boris Johnson’s spokesman denied that the government had failed to ensure enough tests could be processed. “We are working hard to increase laboratory capacity, and that’s why we announced last week work to begin on the building of a new lab to process tens of thousands more tests a day by the end of the year,” he said.
“We built a huge diagnostic laboratory testing network almost from scratch in recent months, and we are continuing to build that capacity.”
On Tuesday morning, the weekly cabinet meeting was briefed by Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific officer, with Johnson reiterating warning of “complacency” over the virus among young people.
“The prime minister cautioned that in other countries which had seen an increase in infections this was followed a number of weeks later by a rise in hospitalisations,” his spokesman said. “The PM said that what had taken place elsewhere was that young people had gone on to infect older generations, who had become seriously ill, and it was vital to ensure that did not happen here.”
Labour’s shadow health minister, Justin Madders, said: “It beggars belief that six months into this pandemic the government are only now realising that the testing system is not set up to meet demand.
“It is now clear what a major strategic error it was for the government to decide to set up a brand new laboratory infrastructure from scratch and once again we are playing catch up. Ministers urgently need to get a grip on this ahead of the winter.”