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Britain delays easing of lockdown as virus spread speeds up

A Muslim man uses hand sanitizer at the Bradford Grand Mosque as Muslims gathered for Eid al-Adha prayers, in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England, Friday July 31, 2020. Britain’s health secretary has defended a decision to reimpose restrictions on social life in a swath of northern England, saying it was important to keep ahead of the spread of COVID-19. The affected region has a large Muslim population, and the restrictions come prior to the Eid al-Adha holiday starting on Friday. (Danny Lawson/PA via AP)

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put some of the country’s next steps out of lockdown on hold Friday with just a few hours’ notice, saying the number of new coronavirus cases was on the rise for the first time since May.

The government’s top medical adviser warned that it was impossible to fully reopen society without the virus running out of control.

Johnson said statistics showed that the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community is likely increasing, with an estimated 4,900 new infections every day, up from 2,000 a day at the end of June. Britain has Europe’s highest confirmed death toll in the pandemic, more than 46,000, behind only the United States and Brazil.

“We just can’t afford to ignore this evidence,” Johnson said at a news conference. “With those numbers creeping up, our assessment is that we should now squeeze (the) brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control.”

Johnson called off plans to allow venues, including casinos, bowling alleys and skating rinks, to open beginning today. The return of wedding receptions was also delayed, along with plans to allow some fans back into sports stadiums and limited audiences into theaters.

He said the measures will be reviewed after two weeks.

The prime minister said a rule requiring face coverings to be worn in shops and on public transit will be extended to museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship beginning on Aug. 8.

One change that was not put on hold: Beginning today, U.K. businesses can ask employees to return to workplaces as long as they have been made “COVID secure.”

Scientists advising the government say they are no longer confident that the R figure, which measures how many people each infected person passes the disease to, is below 1 in England. A number above 1 means the virus will spread exponentially.

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, said the country had reached “the outer edge” of its ability to return to normal without risking a new wave of the disease.

“We have to be realistic about this,” he said at the news conference. “The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong.

“If we do pull back, then we should be able to hold the line.”

Britain imposed a nationwide lockdown in March — closing schools and businesses and barring all but essential travel — and has been lifting it in stages since June.

Countries across Europe that were hit hard by the pandemic in the spring, including Spain, are seeing rising infection rates after lifting lockdowns.

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