New rules banning social gatherings of more than six people are “absolutely vital to protect life”, the Health Secretary has said.
The change in the law in England will come into force on Monday 14th September as the Government seeks to curb the rise in coronavirus cases.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce the change in the law after the number of daily positive Covid-19 cases in the UK rose to almost 3,000.
The legal limit on social gatherings will be reduced from 30 people to six.
It will apply to gatherings indoors and outdoors – including private homes, as well as parks, pubs and restaurants.
It comes as Mr Hancock also said that the pause in a Covid-19 vaccine trial was “not necessarily a setback”.
Trials of the vaccine under development by AstraZeneca and Oxford University have been put on hold owing to a reported side effect in a patient in the UK.
Mr Hancock said there was another pause in the trial earlier in the summer which was “resolved without a problem”.
“What it does underline is that when it comes to the vaccine, we will do everything necessary to ensure a vaccine is safe and effective,” he said.
On the new rules on social distancing, he told Sky News: “Abiding by these rules is absolutely vital to protect life.
“We have seen the increase in the number of cases sadly in the last few days.
“We have seen across Europe there is a second wave that many countries have experienced – some of those countries have then got that second wave under control.
“We are determined to take the action that keeps people safe.
“It is incredibly important that everybody follows these new rules and we will be bringing in strict enforcement so that they can be followed.”
When asked if the new rules would mean that Christmas is cancelled, Mr Hancock told LBC radio: “I hope not but we clearly need to act. This is a really simple rule which says you cannot socialise with more than six people.”
He added: “We want to set out very clearly for everybody – so that everybody has the chance to see these rules, read them and then to follow them, and that’s why it will come into force on Monday.
“You have seen that where there is a big spike like Bolton, that’s where we will take action immediately.
“These rules are so important, every single person in the country needs to know what they are so that we can together get a grip of the virus.”
Gatherings of more than six people will be allowed where the household or support bubble is larger than six, or where the gathering is for work or education purposes.
Mr Hancock said the reason work and education were exempt was because “we need to get through this coronavirus with the minimal impact”.
He added: “But it does mean that when it comes to socialising, we are unfortunately having to put in place these rules because our contact tracing system – which is now excellent – shows that the majority of the transmission of this disease is in social circumstances.”
Exemptions will also apply for weddings, funerals and Covid-secure organised team sports, with a full list to be published by the Government before Monday.
Mr Johnson is expected to tell the press conference: “We need to act now to stop the virus spreading. So we are simplifying and strengthening the rules on social contact – making them easier to understand and for the police to enforce.
“It is absolutely critical that people now abide by these rules and remember the basics – washing your hands, covering your face, keeping space from others, and getting a test if you have symptoms.”
Meanwhile Mr Hancock rejected claims that the testing system was failing, telling Sky News that testing capacity was at its highest ever level.
But he said that in the last couple of weeks there had been an increase in demand among people not eligible for tests.
“We have had stories of schools sending a whole year group to go and get a test and that is not appropriate, what is appropriate is that if you have symptoms then get a test.”
On the new social restrictions, Downing Street said chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and the Government had jointly agreed that urgent action was needed after the rise in coronavirus cases.
Some 2,420 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus were recorded in Britain as of 9am on Tuesday, following the 2,988 reported in the UK on Sunday, which was the largest daily figure since May.
The Government hopes that the change to the law will make it easier for the police to identify and disperse illegal gatherings.
Failure to comply could result in a £100 fine, which will double on each repeat offence up to £3,200.
But the Police Federation of England and Wales urged the Government to “play its part” through a public information campaign after “so many changes in legislation”.
Different rules apply to social gatherings elsewhere in the UK.
In Scotland, up to eight people are allowed to meet indoors, while groups of 15 from up to five households are permitted outdoors, but people should maintain a social distance.
People there should not meet people from more than four other households in total whether indoors and/or outdoors.
In Wales, up to 30 people can meet outdoors and in Northern Ireland the number is 15.
The change to the law comes after Mr Johnson told his Cabinet that ministers must ensure there is “no complacency” among the public, and particularly young people, following the rise in coronavirus infections.
And Mr Hancock warned of a possible second peak, as he imposed further measures in Bolton restricting all hospitality to takeaways only – as well as new rules meaning venues will have to close between 10pm and 5am.
Meanwhile, Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething said a local coronavirus lockdown is being imposed in Caerphilly because there is evidence of “community transmission” in the area.
People will not be allowed to enter or leave the area without a reasonable excuse after the restrictions came into force at 6pm on Tuesday.
Picture: Health Secretary Matt Hancock. (Toby Melville/WPA Rota/PA).