Britain will go into lockdown from Monday night after Boris Johnson ordered sweeping measures to stop people leaving their homes “at this moment of national emergency.”
As the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country, the prime minister approved a radical ban on all unnecessary movement of people for at least three weeks. Police will break up gatherings and have the power to fine individuals who defy the tough new laws.
The unprecedented steps represent the most dramatic and sweeping 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 on 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 nonessential items, playgrounds, libraries and places of worship all will 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, get medical care or 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.
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 on 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.
In the face of a mounting economic crisis, the government has promised a $405 billion (350 billion pound) 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.
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.