Finally, the UK government has taken the decision for people to “stay at home, [as] this is a national emergency” in its efforts to halt the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.
The pressure on the government was immense, especially from the National Health Service (NHS), with Health Secretary Matt Hancock warning that the NHS was approaching breaking point in dealing with the coronavirus.
The lockdown decision, announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a dramatic TV address on Monday, was received with a sigh of relief, but with an alarming question: was the decision too late to protect the UK from an Italian scenario regarding the spread of the virus?
In his televised address to the nation, Johnson ordered Britons to stay at home to halt the spread of the coronavirus, imposing curbs on everyday life without precedent in peacetime.
All but essential shops must close immediately, and people should no longer meet family or friends or risk being fined. “From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home,” Johnson said.
The British public will only be allowed to leave their homes to shop for basic necessities, exercise, for medical need, to provide care for elder family members, or travel to and from work where absolutely necessary.
“That’s all – these are the only reasons you should leave your home,” Johnson said, adding that people should not meet friends or family members who do not live in their home.
“If you don’t follow the rules, the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings,” he warned.
Under the new measures, the government will stop all gatherings of more than two people in public who do not live together and stop all social events, including weddings and baptisms but not funerals. Parks will remain open but only for exercise.
The government will also close all shops selling non-essential goods, Johnson said, including clothing stores, as well as other premises including libraries, playgrounds, and gyms. The British Retail Consortium said shop owners understood the gravity of the situation.
The tougher tone from the government followed evidence at the weekend that many were ignoring official guidelines about social distancing as they flocked to parks and beauty spots.
The new measures come as Britain’s lower house of parliament approved emergency legislation giving the authorities sweeping powers to tackle the outbreak, including the right to detain people and put them in isolation to protect public health.
“Without a huge national effort to halt the spread of this virus, there will come a moment when no health service in the world could possibly cope, because there won’t be enough ventilators, enough intensive care beds, enough doctors and nurses,” Johnson said in his address.
He had earlier resisted pressure to impose a full lockdown even as other European countries had done so, but was forced to change tack as projections showed the health system could become overwhelmed.
“These rules are not optional,” London mayor Sadiq Khan said on Tuesday. London is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in Britain, but on Tuesday morning trains and subways were still full of passengers.
To enforce the lockdown, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said that Britain could introduce stronger measures than the 30-pound fixed-penalty fines for people who flout the restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“The police have a range of enforcement tools, and of course fixed-penalty notices and fines are just one of them. If people do persist in behaving in an anti-social way, there are stronger measures that we have,” he told the media on Tuesday.
“The legislation will be in place in order to ensure that we have appropriate penalties and appropriate punishments for those people who do not adhere to the clear advice that the government has given and that the police are ready to enforce.”
The opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said he supported the measures, and police chiefs said the moves were sensible and that they would be working with the government on how to enforce them.
Deaths from the virus in Britain jumped by 54 to 335 on Monday as the government said the military would help ship millions of items of personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks to healthcare workers who have complained of shortages.
“It’s like a war effort – it is a war against this virus, and so the army have been incredibly helpful in getting those logistics so we can get the supplies to protect people on the front line,” Hancock told the BBC, saying the health service now had 12,000 ventilators, 7,000 more than at the start of the crisis.
The intervention of the army came after health workers pleaded with the government to increase PPE supplies, with frontline doctors warning that they felt like “cannon fodder” and were being asked to put their lives at risk with out-of-date masks and low stocks of equipment.
Hancock also said the government was preparing the next phase of its action plan, which includes requiring the elderly to self-isolate, possibly for four months.
“We also need to take steps to protect the vulnerable, and we set out in the plan how we would be prepared to do that and to advise the elderly and the vulnerable who are most at risk from this virus to protect themselves, to shield themselves, by self-isolating,” Hancock told Sky News.
Pauline, a 77-year-old retired teacher who has been instructed by the government, along with 1.5 million people in the UK, to stay at home and not leave for any reason whatsoever for at least 12 weeks is very concerned about the coronavirus, but also about the idea of isolation for this period.
“According to the instructions, I will not go out and I will count on the government to deliver food and medicine. I don’t know yet what the mechanisms are, so I am really worried,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Going out also worries me as increasing numbers are infected and going out to buy milk is a big risk if you are my age. I fear that we are very late in implementing strict measures to contain the disease and now we may be within days from Italy’s situation,” she added.
Britain has been taking a different approach from other countries across Europe and around the world by declining to heavily restrict everyday activities or introduce “social distancing” measures.
The UK strategy is based on the presumption that most people will eventually get the Covid-19 virus and severe measures to contain it are unlikely to work.
But as infections rise in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so has criticism of the government’s approach from Johnson’s political opponents, scientists and an increasingly worried population.
Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said the UK was “about four weeks or so behind Italy,” where more than 15,000 infections and more than 1,000 deaths have been recorded in only three weeks.
“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely,” Vallance said.
The virus has already had a major impact in Britain. The Premier League has cancelled football matches until 3 April. Some universities are moving classes online. And commuters can get rush-hour seats on the London Underground as more people work from home. Hotels, shops and restaurants have reported business dropping off as tourists cancel their trips.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly