Johnson Threatens U.K. Lockdown as Public Ignores Virus Warnings


(Bloomberg) -- Boris Johnson warned Britons they face “tougher measures” including a potential full lockdown if they continue to ignore calls to stop social gatherings, as his government asks Parliament to grant sweeping powers to tackle the accelerating coronavirus outbreak.

With the U.K.’s weekend newspapers full of reports about people meeting in parks and traveling to coastal towns, the prime minister said his government may be forced to take more stringent methods to enforce social distancing, and will consider options over the next 24 hours.

Johnson Threatens U.K. Lockdown as Public Ignores Virus Warnings

“We need to think about the kinds of measures that we’ve seen elsewhere, other countries that have been forced to bring in restrictions on people’s movements altogether,” Johnson said at a televised news conference on Sunday. “Some people are not making it easy for us because they are congregating in a way that helps spread the disease.”

This week, the government will seek to fast-track emergency legislation through Parliament, giving it more power to close meeting places and detain people who are a danger to public health. The measures reflect the growing sense of crisis, with Johnson warning on Saturday that the National Health Service is as little as two weeks away from being swamped.

Police Powers

The latest data on Sunday show a significant jump in Britain’s death toll, to 281 from 177 on Friday, with total cases rising above 5,500. The disease is spreading fastest in the capital, and London Mayor Sadiq Khan said police may need to use powers provided for in the emergency law to break up gatherings.

But in a potential complication for Johnson, the government faces a revolt in the House of Commons over the draft legislation. A group of cross-party MPs -- including prominent Conservatives David Davis and Andrew Mitchell -- want to shorten the law’s duration from the government’s planned two years.

Johnson Threatens U.K. Lockdown as Public Ignores Virus Warnings

Though not yet a setback -- Johnson has an 80-vote majority in Parliament’s elected lower chamber to play with -- it’s an unwelcome development for a government seeking to exert control over a crisis. Its early response drew criticism from medical experts demanding more urgent action.

Johnson responded by implementing a series of tougher measures last week, with schools and leisure facilities ordered to close, and people instructed to stay indoors. The latest move is to tell 1.5 million people with severe underlying health issues to self-isolate for at least three months. The government pledged to use local councils and even military personnel to ensure they get the food and medicines they need.

In other developments:

  • The government issued new guidance on internal travel in the U.K., calling on people not to visit second homes or holiday homes. “People should remain in their primary residence,” it said
  • Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said an antibody test to show if people had already had the virus will be available in weeks
  • Jenrick also told the BBC that the NHS now has 12,000 ventilators available, up from 5,000 last week, and the government has also received prototypes from the private sector
  • Amid calls for the government to provide more support to the self-employed following its unprecedented package for salaried workers, Jenrick said the government is keeping the issue under review

‘Absolutely Critical’

The situation is “deeply worrying” and the next week will be “absolutely critical,” Jeremy Hunt, the U.K.’s longest-serving health secretary from 2012 to 2018, told Sky News.

Until Sunday, the prime minister had publicly resisted calls to emulate countries including Italy, France and Spain in implementing tight restrictions on citizens’ movement.

According to the French newspaper Liberation, President Emmanuel Macron called Johnson on Friday morning to tell him that France would close its borders to travelers from Britain if Johnson didn’t take more steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus -- hours before the British prime minister ordered pubs, restaurants and leisure centers to close.

A U.K. official said the decision was made purely on scientific advice and was always in the government’s road map for dealing with the outbreak.

But with the disease spreading rapidly and the death toll rising, Johnson struck an at times exasperated tone on Sunday as he laid out the option of a stricter social distancing regime. He made clear it was not his preference.

“It’s so important that that pleasure and that ability is preserved, but it can only really be preserved if everybody acts responsibly,” Johnson said of curtailing people’s right to go outside if they don’t keep to social distancing rules. “If we can’t do that then, yes, I’m afraid we’re going to have to bring forward tougher measures.”

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