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Coronavirus: UK brings in strict curbs on life to fight virus

Coronavirus: UK brings in strict curbs on life to fight virus

  • 24 March 2020
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  • Coronavirus pandemic
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Media captionBoris Johnson: "You must stay at home"

Boris Johnson has outlined strict new measures to tackle the spread of coronavirus, including a ban on public gatherings of more than two people.

He said people should leave home only to exercise once a day, travel to and from work where "absolutely necessary", shop for essential items and to fulfil any medical or care needs.

He also ordered the immediate closure of shops selling non-essential goods.

But police said they had received lots of calls asking what was still allowed.

As of Monday, some 335 people have died with the virus in the UK.

'National emergency'

On Monday evening, nearly 21 million TV viewers watched Mr Johnson tell the country it was facing a "moment of national emergency" and that staying at home was necessary to protect the NHS, save lives and tackle "the biggest threat this country has faced for decades".

Police and local authorities will have powers to disperse gatherings, including through fines.

The restrictions would be under constant review and a relaxation of the rules would be considered in three weeks, he said.

"To put it simply, if too many people become seriously unwell at one time, the NHS will be unable to handle it - meaning more people are likely to die, not just from coronavirus but from other illnesses as well," he said.

For the first time, all the UK's mobile networks are sending out a government message on Tuesday morning to their customers with details of the new measures.

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The new measures came amid fears people were disregarding the government's social distancing advice.

At the weekend, crowds of people were seen at beaches, parks, markets and other public spaces.

The new guidance says people should only leave their homes for one of four reasons:

  • Shopping for basic necessities such as food and medicine. Shopping trips should be as infrequent as possible
  • One form of exercise a day such as a run, walk or cycle. This should be done alone or only with people you live with
  • Any medical need, or to provide care or to help a vulnerable person. This includes moving children under the age of 18 between their parents' homes, where applicable. Key workers or those with children identified as vulnerable can continue to take their children to school
  • Travelling to and from work, but only where work absolutely cannot be done from home

Even when following the above guidance, people should minimise the amount of time spent out of their homes and should keep two metres (6ft) away from people they do not live with.

The government is also stopping all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies - but funerals attended by immediate family members are allowed.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said if people did not follow the rules, the police would "have the tools to ensure they are penalised and punished if they put others' lives at risk".

These measures represent some of the most far-reaching curbs on personal freedom ever introduced in the UK in peacetime.

But it is unclear how the rules can be made to work.

The first hurdle is to get them on to the statute book; although the prime minister said the restrictions on travel and gatherings would come into effect immediately, police don't have the powers to enforce them yet, nor have they had official guidance.

The second issue - assuming legal regulations are approved later this week - is the practical difficulty of getting groups to disperse and accurately identifying people who should not be on the streets, without losing public goodwill and sparking disorder.

When efforts to persuade those who do not comply have failed, officers will be able to issue fines, with prosecutions likely to be a last resort.

But at a time when officer numbers are increasingly depleted through illness and self-isolation, forces will be hoping communities do the right thing without the need for intervention.

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Media captionAfter Boris Johnson brings in new measures, the BBC explains why staying in is a matter of life and death

Businesses that will not need to close include supermarkets, petrol stations, post offices, launderettes, bike shops, pet shops, hardware stores and banks.

Mr Gove said all major construction work should go ahead but jobs carried out at close quarters in someone's home would not be appropriate.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan criticised that approach, saying too many people had been given "key worker" status, including construction workers.

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Premises such as libraries, non-essential shops, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and places of worship have been ordered to close.

Hotels, hostels, campsites and caravan parks must also close unless key workers need to stay there, or if others staying there cannot get back home.

Parks will remain open for exercise but people are not allowed to gather in groups.

Community centres can stay open but only for the purpose of "hosting essential voluntary or public services" such as food banks or service for homeless people, the guidance says.

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Image caption Soldiers deliver protective equipment to doctors and nurses working at St Thomas' Hospital in London

Prisoners in England and Wales will be confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and allowed out only to shower and use pay-phones, with all visits cancelled, the BBC understands.

Some 83,945 people in the UK have been tested for coronavirus with 6,650 testing positive. However, the true number of cases will be far higher as tests are primarily done on hospital patients with symptoms of the virus.

It seems hard to overstate how huge an impact this will have on the country, and what a massive decision this is for the government to have taken - whose effect will last at least for a period of three weeks at the shortest, potentially for very much longer.

Remember this though is not quite the kind of total crackdown we have seen in other countries - at least not yet.

Not surprisingly, there is already therefore enormous controversy about whether the UK has been acting fast enough.

Read more from Laura

'Real challenge'

But there were calls for more information about the guidance after the prime minister scrapped his daily press conference on Monday to announce the measures in a statement.

Lincolnshire Police warned of an "extremely high volume" of calls and Humberside Chief Constable Lee Freeman said his force had received "a number of calls" on the subject, which he said he was unable to answer.

Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said enforcing the new restrictions would be "a real, real challenge", as there was already "large amounts of sickness" among officers across London.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a tweet that the next few weeks would be "testing" for police but she would make sure officers had "the resources they need to keep themselves and the public safe".

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the measures were "the right response" but called for more guidance on workplace closures.

"The government must close the loopholes to give security to all workers, including the self-employed, as well as renters and mortgage holders," he said.

The prime minister said he knew the "damage" the restrictions were causing to people's lives, businesses and jobs - and said "many lives will sadly be lost" despite the measures.

But he added there was "a clear way through", by strengthening the NHS with former clinicians returning to work, accelerating the search for treatments and a vaccine and buying millions of testing kits.

In other key developments:

  • Sports Direct has confirmed it will not open its stores to the public following a U-turn by the sportswear retailer
  • Most of Ryanair's flights are expected to be grounded from Tuesday - with no further flights likely in April or May
  • Chemicals giant Ineos is to build a hand sanitiser plant near Middlesbrough within 10 days to produce one million bottles a month
  • Emergency legislation introducing measures to respond to the virus will go before the House of Lords later after it passed through the Commons on Monday evening
  • Waitrose is limiting the number of people who can shop in its stores as it seeks to protect customers and staff
  • Carmakers are answering calls from governments to help make more ventilators and face masks
  • Donald Trump insists the US will "soon be open for business" as more states shut down
  • China announces 78 new cases - 74 of them from abroad. Wuhan - the city where the virus emerged - is to lift its lockdown next month
  • One of Africa's most famous musicians, saxophonist Manu Dibango, dies of the virus
  • Hundreds of UK citizens stranded in New Zealand come together to ask for help

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