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Experts Warn Britain Could See A Severe Uptick In Coronavirus Cases

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the U.K., announced new pandemic restrictions to help get the coronavirus under control.

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PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Mr. Speaker, we will spare no effort in developing vaccines, treatments, new forms of mass testing. But unless we palpably make progress, we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will remain in place for, perhaps, six months.

INSKEEP: Great Britain had been making the opposite of progress. After a summer when life largely returned to normal, coronavirus numbers in the U.K. rose. NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt is living all of this. Hey, there, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What are the restrictions? And how big a difference is it?

LANGFITT: Yeah, it's - one of the things is sort of a curfew for pubs, bars and restaurants. They're going to have to close at 10 p.m. Boris Johnson also telling people to work from home if they can to avoid spreading the disease, which is the - a reversal of the government's position. This is coming after - we're up to about 6,000 a day in terms of cases. And this is what Johnson also had to say in the House of Commons today.

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JOHNSON: This is the moment when we must act. If we can curb the number of daily infections and reduce the reproduction rate to one, then we can save lives, protect the NHS and the most vulnerable and shelter to the economy.

LANGFITT: And what he's saying here, Steve, is the U.K. needs to do this now to avoid the kind of lockdown that we saw back in March, which devastated a lot of businesses here.

INSKEEP: OK, reducing the reproduction rate to one. That's a statistic he wants - each new person, on average, to infect less than one new person. Although, just saying the pubs should close at 10 - is that really a big enough change to make a difference?

LANGFITT: (Laughter). No, Steve. Most people don't seem to say that and see it that way. And I will include my daughter, Catherine (ph), in that. She actually works at our neighborhood pub. And I talked to her about it this morning. And she says, you know, late at night, people do get drunk. They become affectionate. And there's a lot of ignoring of social distancing. So it will help to close down a little bit earlier. But last call there is at 11:00 anyway, so it won't be cutting time much in that pub. And she doesn't think it's going to make that much of a difference nor, frankly, I think, do a lot of people here in England who have heard these measures today.

INSKEEP: I guess it does make some difference if people do work from home instead of going into the office if somewhere, in fact, do that.

LANGFITT: That will help. I mean, I think that that will help some. A lot of people, though, are not going in right now anyway. A lot of people, out of convenience and otherwise, are staying out of London.

INSKEEP: What's the scientific community saying about these measures?

LANGFITT: I think some think that it needs to go further than what the governor - what Boris Johnson is talking about. Other measures could include no mixing of households or a lockdown for a couple of weeks that would try to put the brakes on the virus. It's clear that the government's deeply worried about the economy and doesn't want to go that far right now because the economy's been improving actually, Steve, in the past couple of two, three months. And it doesn't want that to stop.

INSKEEP: Now you go into hibernation, so to speak, for another six months, according to Boris Johnson. Is the country ready, though, if there is a big second wave?

LANGFITT: It's better in some ways. You know, they've figured out ways to use steroids to cut the fatality rate. And so that's been very positive. But on the testing front, we don't have the kind of testing system that we hoped to many, many months ago. And Keir Starmer - he's the leader of the opposition Labour Party. And today, this is what he had to say to Johnson.

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KEIR STARMER: We warned the prime minister months ago that testing needed to be fixed by the autumn. But the government didn't listen. They pretended there wasn't a problem. They didn't act quickly enough. Now the testing system isn't working just when we need it.

LANGFITT: And I've got to tell you, Steve, this is a critique you hear across the country. Most people I know are stunned that after all these months, the government has not been able to build a testing system that will meet demand.

INSKEEP: NPR London correspondent Frank Langfitt, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.