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UK to impose tougher COVID-19 measures amid case spike

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will announce new restrictions on social interaction Tuesday as the government tries to slow the spread of COVID-19 before it spirals out of control.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove told Sky News that pubs and restaurants across England will be ordered to close at 10 p.m. and people who can work from home will be encouraged to do so, reversing a government drive to get people back to the office.

Gove said reducing “social mixing” was key to slowing the spread of the virus. he said it was impossible to say how long the restrictions would be in place.

“What we hope is we can take appropriate steps now, which mean that if we succeed in beating back the virus, then we will in the future be able to progressively relax them,” Gove told the BBC. “But what I can’t do is predict with absolute certainty.”

The prime minister will release further details of the government’s plan when he speaks to the House of Commons at 1around 12:30 p.m. (11:30 GMT) after meeting the Cabinet and the government's COBRA emergency committee. He will later deliver a televised address to the nation.

The new restrictions come a day after the government’s top scientific and medical advisers said COVID-19 infections were doubling every seven days and could rise to 49,000 a day by mid-October if nothing is done to stem the tide. On Monday there were 4,300 new infections, the highest level since May.

The U.K. has gradually been increasing restrictions as cases rise, with people barred from meeting in large groups. But the measures are far less stringent than a nationwide lockdown imposed in March that saw restrictions on movement and most businesses closed. It was eased starting in June as cases began to fall, but that trend has now been reversed.

On Monday, the chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland raised the virus alert from three to four, the second-highest level, on the advice of the Joint Biosecurity Center. They said cases of COVID-19 were rising “rapidly and probably exponentially.”

In a live televised briefing, Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said after a slow rise in new infections over the summer, the number of new COVID-19 cases is now doubling every seven days.

In other countries, such an increase has soon led to a rise in deaths, Whitty said.

Whitty stressed that infection rates are rising among all age groups, and infections among the young and healthy will inevitably spread to friends, family and ultimately to the most vulnerable in society.

“This is not someone else’s problem,” he said. “This is all of our problem.’’

To persuade people to stay home if they test positive, the government announced it would pay low-income workers 500 pounds ($639) if they are told to self-isolate for 14 days. It also said those breaking quarantines could face fines up to 10,000 pounds ($12,800).

Britain has Europe’s highest death toll in the pandemic, with over 41,800 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Experts say all such figures understate the true impact of the pandemic.

While death rates remain relatively low so far, Whitty warned that deaths are likely to rise. The U.K. reported a seven-day average of 21 deaths a day last week, compared with a peak of 942 deaths on April 10.

The rise in U.K. infection rates comes as lawmakers across the political spectrum have criticized the Conservative government’s testing program. While ministers tout the record numbers of tests being performed, there are widespread reports of people having to travel hundreds of miles for tests or tests being voided because it’s taking labs too long to process them.

An app meant to bolster virus contact tracing efforts is to be released this week after months of delay.

Follow AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak