Home Secretary Priti Patel has warned the rise of mass gatherings witnessed in recent days was “unacceptable” and that it risked a second deadly spike of coronavirus.
Ms Patel, in interviews with broadcasters, also confirmed reports that Leicester faced becoming the first area to have a local lockdown imposed following a surge in infections.
Police in London had to disperse crowds causing “significant disruptions” at two unlicensed music events in south London on Saturday night while the Liver Building in Liverpool was set on fire on Friday as fans gathered to celebrate Liverpool FC’s Premier League title win.
Ms Patel said police would continue to break up such gatherings and that the “full force of the law” would come down on those found guilty of assaulting emergency service workers.
Officers in Liverpool were subject to “violent confrontations” while dozens of Metropolitan Police officers were injured in aggressive scenes as they attempted to shut down late-night parties in Brixton on Wednesday evening and in Notting Hill on Thursday.
Ms Patel, speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, said: “What we’ve seen with mass gatherings and protests is unacceptable.
“The violence we’ve seen against our officers is also unacceptable.
“My message is the same – I would urge people not to participate in gatherings of that nature or protests, but I would also add if people do assault police officers, they will feel the full force of the law.
“It is simply unacceptable to have people gathering in these awful ways that we have been seeing.”
She told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show that Liverpool fans “did not need to go to the football ground and congregate outside the stadium” to mark their team’s first top flight title in 30 years.
Ms Patel warned that a second wave of Covid-19 would devastate the UK’s economy, saying she could not “think of anything worse than us having another wave of this awful disease”.
The Cabinet minister confirmed a report in the Sunday Times about the Government preparing to impose a lockdown “within days” on Leicester after a hike in coronavirus cases in the city.
The paper said Health Secretary Matt Hancock had been examining legal aspects of the shutdown after it was revealed 658 new cases were recorded in the Leicester area in the two weeks to June 16, having announced he was sending in a mobile testing unit to uncover how far Covid-19 had spread.
Ms Patel said the Government was supporting the local authority to take the necessary steps to “control the virus”.
“Well, that is correct,” said Ms Patel, when asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr whether the Leicester reports were accurate.
She added: “There will be support going into Leicester and in fact the Health Secretary was in touch with many of us over the weekend explaining some of the measures, the support on testing, resources that will go into the local authority as well.”
But Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary and Leicester South MP, said Ms Patel had “got slightly in a muddle” about a possible district lockdown.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s World At The Weekend programme, Mr Ashworth said he had been in touch with Mr Matt Hancock, adding: “Based on the conversations we’ve had in the last 24 hours I don’t believe a local lockdown in Leicester is about to be proposed.”
Mr Ashworth said the focus was on securing more home testing kits and said “if necessary” shops might have to close.
In related news:
– Scientists have warned the country remains “on a knife edge”, with Wellcome Trust director Sir Jeremy Farrar admitting he was “worried” about a possible spike in infections ahead of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers reopening next weekend.
– The 100 additional coronavirus deaths recorded by the Department for Health was the lowest Saturday figure since the start of lockdown. The total death toll is thought to have passed 54,000.
– The Prime Minister’s speech on Tuesday outlining his blueprint for the UK’s economic recovery after coronavirus will focus on building roads and establishing better broadband connections in a bid to “create jobs”, according to Ms Patel.
– Labour has called for extra support for furloughed workers, with Ed Miliband, ex-party leader and now shadow business secretary, saying he feared “Thatcher levels of unemployment” if the hospitality sector and others which could not fully reopen did not receive continued help from Government.
Meanwhile, the Home Secretary said UK borders could be reopened in the coming days now that international and domestic coronavirus transmission rates were continuing to fall.
Ministers are due to confirm the blanket requirement to self-isolate for 14 days upon returning to the UK will be scrapped as part of a so-called traffic light system, meaning trips to France, Greece and Spain, where virus transmission is low, are within sight.
The traffic light arrangement will see officials place countries into green, amber and red categories based on the prevalence of coronavirus within each nation’s borders.
The list of quarantine-free countries is due to be published on Wednesday, with restrictions lifted as soon as July 6.
But Ms Patel told Sky News that discussions with countries on the safe list were still taking place.
“These measures won’t come in overnight,” she said.
“They will take time because some of this will be down to negotiation (and) discussion with certain countries.”