U.K. Lockdown Could Intensify to Tackle ‘National Emergency’
The U.K. could tighten its lockdown measures if more action is necessary, after Boris Johnson ordered sweeping restrictions to stop people leaving their homes.
As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country, the prime minister approved a ban on all unnecessary movement of people for at least three weeks. Police will break up gatherings and will have the power to fine individuals who defy the tough new laws.
On Tuesday, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said further action will be considered and stricter rules could be imposed if necessary. “In three weeks’ time we will be able to say whether or not the path that we followed needs any further intensification,” Gove told Sky News, adding that some restrictions could also be lifted.
The unprecedented steps represent the most dramatic and widespread restrictions on the movement of people the country has faced in peacetime.
“Without a huge national effort to halt the growth of this virus, there will come a moment when no health service in the world could possibly cope,” Johnson said in a televised address to the nation Monday. “From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction -- you must stay at home.”
Under the plan, which takes effect immediately:
- Hotels, shops selling non-essential items, playgrounds, libraries and places of worship will all be closed
- People will be allowed out of their homes only to buy essentials, take one form of exercise a day, travel to work if it can’t be avoided, for medical care, or to help a vulnerable person
- All social gatherings apart from funerals will be banned.
- The government will review the measures after three weeks to see if they can be relaxed
John Apter, chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, warned it was “not realistic” for officers to keep track of how many times people leave home.
“Certainly the police will get involved with more than two people gathering in the same place,” Apter told the BBC. “But as far as policing the bread aisles in the supermarkets, or checking how many times people are going to the shops, that’s simply impractical.”
Until now, Johnson has relied on persuading people to stop socializing and stay in their homes, saying it is the best way to save lives by preventing the state-run National Health Service becoming overwhelmed.
The prime minister has been accused of failing to act fast enough to get a grip on the spreading virus, which has so far claimed the lives of 335 people in the U.K. He was criticized for waiting until last Friday to close schools and force bars and restaurants to shut, when other countries had acted faster. Other countries in Europe have imposed tight curbs on movement, including permit systems for people to leave their homes, and limiting travel.
But last weekend, Johnson warned the U.K. could be heading for the scale of crisis Italy has suffered, if individuals failed to follow his advice. Even so, thousands of people refused to comply with his requests to stay at home and avoid social gatherings -- and the weekend’s newspapers were full of images of crowds in markets, tourist spots and parks.
After a meeting of senior officials Monday, Johnson set out his somber message to the viewing public.
Nobody should leave home to meet their friends, he said. “You should not be meeting family members who do not live in your home,” he told the British people. “You should not be going shopping except for essentials like food and medicine — and you should do this as little as you can.”
Johnson said he understands the damage and disruption such restrictions will do to people’s lives, jobs and businesses. “No Prime Minister wants to enact measures like this,” he said.
But the only way to beat the coronavirus is to act together, he said. “Therefore I urge you at this moment of national emergency to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.”
Emergency legislation is being fast-tracked through Parliament to give government more power to close meeting places and detain people who are a danger to public health. It passed through the House of Commons on Monday night and will be considered by the House of Lords on Tuesday.
In the face of a mounting economic crisis, the government has promised a 350 billion-pound ($405 billion) emergency rescue package of loans and grants for businesses facing collapse, and an unlimited amount of cash to support workers’ wages. On Monday, Johnson’s administration stepped in to help keep train services running and is in talks over action to shore up airlines.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will answer questions in Parliament on Tuesday before introducing a bill to unlock the cash for the rescue plan. Ministers are working urgently to find a way to support the self-employed, leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg said Monday, after lawmakers warned many are on the edge of ruin as a result of the crisis.
On Sunday, the government told 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.
The U.K. Foreign Office urged all British travelers abroad to return to Britain immediately, while commercial flight options are still available.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.