Nearly 2 million people in north-east England face being fined up to £6,400 if they mix with other households indoors in a significant extension of the government’s lockdown powers.
For the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, it will be illegal for people in part of the UK to meet people they do not live with in pubs, bars or restaurants.
The measure comes into force on Wednesday in Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland. Previously, people in these areas were only advised not to meet others indoors.
Breaches of the new regulation, which is yet to be laid down in law, will result in a £200 fine for a first offence, doubling each time up to a maximum of £6,400.
The health secretary said the infection rate in the affected areas had risen above 100 cases per 100,000 people, double England’s average, and that it had “continued to rise sharply” despite a 10pm hospitality curfew and other measures introduced 10 days ago.
Matt Hancock said he had taken the measures while working closely with local councils. However, the announcement was immediately criticised by Nick Forbes, the leader of Newcastle city council, who suggested they had been blindsided by the timing and detail of the move.
“While we have been in discussions with the government on potential further restrictions, the secretary of state has once again stood up and announced changes without telling us he was about to do so,” said Forbes.
“We want to work constructively with the government but the way these measures are being communicated in headlines and without detail does nothing for public confidence. We have demanded clarity on the new restrictions, testing and support for those businesses most affected.”
The Department for Health and Social Care said a funding package would be in place to support the areas affected and that details would be announced in due course.
It said people in support bubbles could continue to meet in any setting and that parents would still be able to form “childcare bubbles” with another household to share caring responsibilities “as long as they are consistent”.
It came as other large parts of England prepared for further restrictions within days as the number of cases and hospital admissions continued to rise. Extra measures for Liverpool, including a possible shutdown of bars, restaurants and pubs, are expected to be announced this week after its cases doubled in six days.
The city’s seven-day infection rate was 242 cases per 100,000 people in the week to 24 September – almost five times the average in England. In Bolton, which previously had the highest rate, the infection rate is 212 per 100,000 people.
Joe Anderson, the mayor of Liverpool, said new infections in the city were doubling every six days and had reached 1,254 cases in the past week, up from 50 a week in August and 14 a week in July.
About 8,000 schoolchildren in the city – more than one in 10 – and at least 350 teachers and staff were self-isolating, he added.
One source suggested the measures could go further than closing the hospitality industry and were expected before Wednesday. “Whatever shock therapy they think Liverpool needs, it may not stop at bars and restaurants. I would be looking at the next 24 hours rather than later,” said one senior figure.
Matt Ashton, Liverpool’s director of public health, said the city was in a “very difficult position”. The rise in cases had led to “sharp increases” in Covid hospital admissions, and “increases in deaths are likely to follow”, he said.
The increase in cases spans all age groups, including over-65s. Steve Rotheram, the metro mayor of the Liverpool city region, said he supported more restrictions but called on the government to provide financial support to businesses forced to close.
He said: “To be effective, any announcement on further local restrictions or local lockdowns has to come with clear messaging and a package of measures to protect jobs and support the local economy, including a local furlough scheme, financial support for businesses and support for the self-employed – many of whom have not received any help at all since this crisis began.”