Perfect storm: Mass gatherings in England stoke concerns

LONDON (AP) — In many ways, it’s been a perfect storm for illegal gatherings in England as the hot weather, which is set to persist into Friday, and Liverpool Football Club’s first league title in 30 years prompted people to abandon their cooped-up coronavirus existence.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned that the government has the power to close beaches and other public spaces in England amid growing concerns over the public’s adherence to social distancing rules.

Following widespread rule-breaking that has seen beaches crammed, illegal street parties in London that have turned violent and a mass celebration in Liverpool, concerns are mounting that people have ditched their risk-averse attitude as the government eases its lockdown restrictions.

With the hot weather set to continue Friday, there was clearly a potential for more mass gatherings, although early indications were that people had not converged on the beaches around the southern English coastal town of Bournemouth in anything like the numbers they had over the past couple of days.

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Hancock told TalkRadio that he was “reluctant” to go down the route of closing public spaces as “people have had a pretty tough lockdown.”

However, he said “we will take action” if there is a spike in the number of coronavirus cases.

On Thursday, the local council around Bournemouth said services were “completely overstretched” as people headed to the seaside, many packed into trains from London, on a day meteorologists confirmed as the hottest of 2020. Under lockdown restrictions in England, groups are limited to six people and people are advised to avoid public transport wherever possible.

A “major incident” was declared that gives additional powers to local authorities and emergency services to tackle the issue, a decision that prompted a rare intervention from the government’s chief medical officer on social media.

Professor Chris Whitty tweeted that COVID-19 remains in “general circulation” and that cases will rise again if people don’t follow the guidelines.

“Naturally people will want to enjoy the sun but we need to do so in a way that is safe for all,” he said.

The scenes of revelry were evident overnight on the streets of London and Liverpool, two of the worst-affected cities during the pandemic, which has claimed 43,230 lives across the U.K., by far the highest in Europe.

A night after clashes in the south London district of Brixton following a street party, which left 22 police officers injured, London’s Metropolitan Police said officers had to attend further unlicensed music events, block parties and raves.

Kensington and Chelsea Police said a gathering in Notting Hill in west London was dispersed by around 2 a.m. Friday. And though there were no confirmed reports of serious injury, it said objects had been thrown at police officers.

“Such behavior and any violent acts will not be tolerated,” it said.

In the wake of the clashes in Brixton on Wednesday night, the Met said it was undertaking an “enhanced policing operation” across London, which involved additional officers in place.

In Liverpool, the scenes were far more jubilant as the Reds ended a 30-year wait to be champions of England again. Fireworks lit up the sky and thousands of delighted fans packed the streets after Manchester City’s defeat to Chelsea meant no team could catch Liverpool in the Premier League.

“You want to be amongst it,” said 23-year-old supporter Libby Stevens.

The gatherings took place just days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave notice that a number of the lockdown restrictions will be eased from July 4, including allowing pubs and restaurants to open their doors. He also effectively announced that the two-meter (6.5-foot) social distancing rule will be reduced to a meter (around three feet) from that date, a move that is largely aimed at bolstering businesses.

The relaxation has met with a lot of criticism, not least because the U.K. is still recording relatively high new coronavirus infections and deaths.

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AP Sports Writer Rob Harris in Liverpool contributed to this report.

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