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UK pubs could face new COVID restrictions soon, UK minister says

FILE PHOTO: People drink outside a pub at the Covent Garden shopping and dining district, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in London, Britain, August 2, 2020. REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

LONDON (Reuters) - Pubs and restaurants across Britain could face greater restrictions to tackle the jump in COVID-19 cases, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday, sending shares plunging once again.

Hancock was asked in a television interview if people would be able to go to the pub this weekend. “We’ll be absolutely clear about changes that we need to make in the very, very near future,” he told ITV.

Asked if that meant no, he replied: “It’s not a no and it’s not a yes. We’ve been working on this all weekend, we haven’t taken the final decision about what we need to do in response to the surge that we’ve seen.”

Shares in Britain’s listed pubs and restaurant groups, including JD Wetherspoon, Mitchells & Butlers, Marston’s and Restaurant Group, fell between 9 and 18% on the stock market.

The wider FTSE 100 bluechip index was down 3%.

The United Kingdom already has the biggest official COVID-19 death toll in Europe - and the fifth largest in the world - and has seen a sharp rise in cases since the beginning of this month.

Pubs in parts of the country already under local lockdown restrictions have been forced to close at 2100 GMT and comments from Hancock that the virus is spreading in social circumstances stoked expectations that further restrictions would be imposed.

Vast swathes of the economy were forced to shut for three months earlier this year to halt the spread of COVID, with pubs, restaurants, cinemas and leisure centres all closing their doors.

Good weather in the summer has helped to drive a recovery, with many drinkers and diners sitting outside to meet friends. Many smaller hospitality owners have warned they may not survive if they have to shut again.

Reporting by Kate Holton and Estelle Shirbon, Editing by Paul Sandle