Some of England's pubs were ordered back into lockdown today amid desperate efforts to stop partying young people fuelling a surge in coronavirus cases.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that bars and restaurants in Bolton will only be allowed to serve takeaway, and must close between 10pm and 5am.
Mr Hancock said the dramatic action was needed as the area has the highest rate of cases in the country, at 120 per 100,000 people.
Flouting of social distancing by 20 and 30-somethings is thought to be largely responsible, and the Cabinet minister said a ban on mixing outside of your own household will now be given legal force.
The news came with Boris Johnson on the verge of slashing the legal limit on private gatherings to assuage concerns about the level of infections in the UK - which has neared 3,000 for two days running.
The number of people legally allowed to meet up in private homes could be reduced in England from the current maximum of 30, potentially to as low as six, and subject to fines running into thousands of pounds. It is not expected the change would cover venues such as pubs, which have 'Covid Secure' measures in place.
Addressing his Cabinet this morning, Mr Johnson warned that in other countries the rise in infections 'was followed a couple of weeks later by a rise in hospitalisations'. He said that was due to young people picking up the disease and then 'going on to infect other generations'.
No10 refused to confirm that the limit on gatherings will definitely be tightened this week, but insisted the government was taking the situation 'extremely seriously' and 'will not hesitate' to act if necessary.
However, the move immediately sparked anger from Tory MPs who pointed out that infection levels remain extremely low. One former minister told MailOnline it would be 'dreadful and disproportionate', an 'enormous intrustion into private life' and 'rule by directive'.
The sharp increase in coronavirus cases over the past few days has caused anxiety about the possibility of a second peak, but experts point out that the uplift has been concentrated among younger people rather than the more vulnerable older generation.
There has also not yet been any significant rise in hospitalisations or deaths, amid theories that treatments have improved and social distancing could be reducing the viral load - meaning cases are less severe.
In other developments in the coronavirus crisis today:The number of people dying from coronavirus in the UK fell to a 24-week low in the final week of August, official data revealed. A total of 73 people died from Covid-19 in England and Wales in the week ending August 28, according to the Office for National Statistics; Nicola Sturgeon risked a fresh row with today after she said the Scottish government is 'not encouraging people to rush back to the office'; England's deputy chief medical officer warned coronavirus must be taken very seriously again or the UK will face 'a bumpy ride over the next few months'; The director of the government's test and trace system has admitted that screening for the public is being held back by problems with testing capacity.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced that bars and restaurants in Bolton will only be allowed to serve takeaway, and must close between 10pm and 5am
Boris Johnson (pictured leaving Downing Street today) and his senior ministers are holding a socially-distanced meeting with concerns rising about infections - which have neared 3,000 for two days running
The infection rates for young people have been rising recently, but so far they have been relatively flat for older people
Data from Public Health England shows that more than 40 per cent of coronavirus tests done in hospitals were positive in March and April but this has now plummeted and remains below 2.5 per cent in both hospitals and the community. This shows that there remains only a small proportion of people with the symptoms of coronavirus who actually have it
Scientists have previously said cases have risen over August as a result of increased testing (pictured, how testing has risen during the pandemic)
But the number of people who receive a 'positive' result after getting tested under Pillar 2 has increased in recent weeks (blue line) to 2.3 per cent. It's also increased under Pillar 2 (red line), but is nowhere near the levels seen at the height of the pandemic
The challenge facing the government was underlined today with the director of the test and trace programme admitting that accessing screening was being hampered by problems with lab capacity
Are cases really rising?
The number of people testing positive has definitely risen. On Sunday and Monday almost 6,000 new cases were confirmed, which was a level not seen since May.
And after June and July had no days with 1,000 or more positive cases, there were 19 with four-figure counts in August.
The daily average is now 2,032 cases per day, which is up from 1,323 a week ago and 834 on August 7.
The most recent data from the Office for National Statistics, however, suggests infections are relatively stable.
The ONS, which does mass testing in households around the country, said last Friday that it estimates around 2,000 people per day are catching the virus in England. This has 'levelled off', it said, and 'Evidence suggests that the incidence rate for England remains unchanged' throughout August.
ONS's estimate fell throughout June from 8,700 cases per day in May to a low of 1,700 per day in early July. It then spiked at the end of July and has since levelled off at 2,000 daily.
Is increased testing behind the surge?
Experts say that increased testing – particularly in places where there are known surges in infections – was always going to lead to more cases being discovered.
It is likely that tests now pick up on a greater proportion of the true number of cases in the community, whereas it only found the most seriously ill during the peak of the crisis. For this reason, the raw numbers of cases cannot be compared like-for-like, because there are now fewer 'hidden' infections.
The positivity of tests - the proportion that are positive - is still very low, at just 2.3 per cent in the community and 0.5 per cent in hospitals.
The huge numbers of negative tests – over 90 per cent of all tests done each day, so more than 150,000 – show that still only a small number of people who think they have Covid-19 actually do.
This suggests the testing regime is successfully picking up most infected people. During the peak of the crisis, positivity was above 40 per cent at times, meaning there were likely a lot more infected people who were not getting tested.
Who is catching coronavirus now and is that important?
A major change in the cases being diagnosed now is the shift towards younger age groups.
Infection rates in people in their teens and 20s have surged since lockdown was lifted in July, at least trebling in both groups.
MailOnline analysis shows infections have surged from 9.2 to 28 cases per 100,000 since July 4, 'Super Saturday', in those aged 20 to 29 in England.
And the case rate has also quadrupled among teenagers - those aged 10 to 19 years old - over July and August, before schools reopened, from 4.1 cases per 100,000 people to 16.2.
At the same time, cases in elderly groups have dropped drastically since the height of the pandemic, when they made up the majority of Covid-19 cases, and have halved since July.
This shift towards younger people is promising because they are significantly less likely to get seriously ill or die if they catch Covid-19.
Sir John Bell, a medicine professor at the University of Oxford, wrote in the Daily Mail today: '[Rising cases] are concerning and, yes, we must be prepared for a second wave of Covid-19 while working hard to contain localised outbreaks to prevent it.
'We must not, however, let this hamper our efforts to return to normality.
'Much of the increase in infections is among the young, who tend to experience moderate or no symptoms. Crucially, we have not yet seen a jump in hospital admissions or deaths.'
Is this a second wave?
Scientists and politicians have largely refused to brand what is happening now a second wave.
Mr Hancock has warned that one could be on its way, while critics of the Government have said there is 'no sign' of one coming at all.
They say that it was obvious that cases would rise when lockdown was lifted, and that the priority now is keeping local lockdowns effective and continuing to test to isolate outbreaks.
Experts do not expect another crisis like the one we had in March and April, which happened because hundreds of thousands of people were already infected by the time the Government had realised there was a UK outbreak.
Professor Carl Heneghan said recently: 'There is currently no second wave. What we are seeing is a sharp rise in the number of healthy people who are carrying the virus, but exhibiting no symptoms. Almost all of them are young. They are being spotted because – finally – a comprehensive system of national test and trace is in place.'
The government's guidance is that gatherings indoors should involve either a maximum of two households, or up to six people from more households.
However, the legal limit is currently 30.
Above that gatherings can be subject to police enforcement, with fines of £100 for attending and up to £10,000 for those who organise events.
Reducing the ceiling would potentially enable the government to crack down on house parties, particularly with students preparing to start or return to university.
Making a statement to the Commons on the Bolton situation, Mr Hancock said: 'Unfortunately after improving for several weeks, we've seen a very significant rise in cases in Bolton.
'Bolton is up to 120 cases per 100,000 of population, the highest case rate in the country and I'm publishing the data behind the decisions that we've taken.
'I must therefore tell that House that, working with the local council, we're taking further local action.
'The rise in cases in Bolton is partly due to socialising by people in their 20s and 30s, we know this from contact tracing.
'And through our contacting tracing system we've identified a number of pubs at which the virus has spread significantly...
'We will restrict all hospitality to takeaways-only and we'll introduce a late-night restriction of operating hours which will mean all venues will be required to close from 10pm to 5am.
'We'll introduce urgently further measures that put the current guidance that people cannot socialise outside their household into law.'
He added: 'Young people do not just spread the virus to each other. They spread the virus to their parent and their grandparents...
'I know social distancing can be hard, and how it can be extra-tough for students who will be starting university – but please, stick with it and play your part in getting this virus under control.'
The challenge facing the government was underlined today with the director of the test and trace programme admitting that