PM urged to fix testing system as he heralds ‘decisive action’ with rule of six

Boris Johnson has said the Government is taking “decisive measures” to tackle rising coronavirus cases by banning social gatherings of more than six people as he faced calls to fix the testing system.

The Prime Minister insisted that the new rules – which will come into force in England on Monday – would “keep our economy going, keep our schools open, and keep this virus under control”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he in principle supports the limit on social gatherings, but accused the Government of not being able to “get the basics right” following reports that people were being denied Covid-19 tests.

During Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, Sir Keir described the “frankly ridiculous” scenario of a mother who lives in London trying to secure a Covid-19 test for her four-year-old daughter.

He said the woman was told the nearest place for a test was Telford or Inverness, before being offered Swansea as an option.

Sir Keir added: “This is frankly ridiculous. Who does the Prime Minister think is responsible for this?”

Mr Johnson said he took responsibility, but suggested his opposite number was launching an “attack” at NHS Test and Trace.

“It is precisely because of the success of Test and Trace that capacity has gone up from 2,000 a month in March to 320,000 a day,” he said.

HEALTH Coronavirus
Weekly rate of new Covid-19 cases in England (PA Graphics)

The Prime Minister said that thanks to the testing system, “we know that, alas, some people have not been following the guidance in the way that they should and therefore we are seeing a rise in infections.

“That’s why today we are taking decisive steps to intensify our social distancing measures – the rule of six that will be familiar to the country – in order that we can keep our economy going, that we can keep our schools open, and keep this virus under control.”

Mr Johnson will use a Downing Street press conference later on Wednesday to outline the change in the law reducing the legal limit on social gatherings from 30 people to six.

It will apply to gatherings indoors and outdoors – including private homes, as well as parks, pubs and restaurants.

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.

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.

The new rules come after the number of daily positive Covid-19 cases in the UK rose to almost 3,000 – figures not seen since May.

Ministers hope 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.

Coronavirus graphic
(PA Graphics)

In other developments:

– 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.

– EasyJet’s chief executive Johan Lundgren said the Government faced its “last chance” to save the aviation industry, writing in the Daily Mail that the removal of passenger taxes and a winter furlough scheme would help the sector survive.

– A “Hands Face Space” campaign has been launched, urging people to ensure they have washed their hands, used a mask where appropriate and maintained social distancing.

Earlier on Wednesday, Health Secretary Matt 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.”

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