Quiet and confusion as UK begins three-week 'virtual lockdown'

Boris Johnson delivers a press briefing in London on March 16, 2020, on developments regarding the spread of the coronavirus.
Boris Johnson delivers a press briefing in London on March 16, 2020, on developments regarding the spread of the coronavirus. © Reuters

Confusion rippled through Britain Tuesday, a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a three-week virtual lockdown halting all non-essential activity to fight the spread of the new coronavirus. The measures came into force as the UK recorded its biggest daily rise in COVID-19 deaths so far.


Roads were much quieter than usual but London Underground trains were crammed with people and streets were far from deserted.

Some workers were also still mingling close together after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the virtual lockdown on Monday evening in which he ordered people to stay at home and banned social gatherings.

The measures came into force as the UK on Tuesday recorded its biggest daily rise in deaths caused by the coronavirus with the number of confirmed cases increasing rapidly, underlining the urgency behind the government's move to lock down the country.

The death toll across Britain rose by 87 on Tuesday to 422, a 26 percent increase in the day, the health ministry said in a statement.

Confirmed cases rose to 8,077 from 6,650, a 21 percent rise that followed a couple of days in which the rate of increase appeared to have tailed off somewhat.

Under the new restrictions imposed by the Johnson administration, people can leave their homes only for very limited reasons such as going to supermarkets for vital supplies or for exercise once a day.

The unprecedented peacetime restrictions, which will last at least three weeks, are intended to stop the state-run National Health Service (NHS) being overwhelmed.

Packed trains

But social media images showed London Underground railway trains were packed with commuters. There were also complaints that the advice was confusing or did not go far enough.

Julia Harris, a London nurse, said her morning train to work was full.

“I worry for my health more on my commute than actually being in the hospital," she said.

Many building sites remained open, with construction workers among those crowding onto early-morning subways.

Electrician Dan Dobson said construction workers felt “angry and unprotected”, but felt they had to keep working.

"None of them want to go to work, everyone is worried about taking it home to their families,” he said. "But they still have bills to pay, they still have rent to pay, they still have to buy food.”

British Treasury chief Rishi Sunak defended keeping construction sites open, insisting it could be done safely.

But London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted: “I cannot say this more strongly: we must stop all non-essential use of public transport now. Employers: please support your staff to work from home unless it's absolutely necessary. Ignoring these rules means more lives lost.” 

Families confused

Many families were also confused by the new rules.

After Johnson said people should not mingle outside of their household units, separated parents asked whether their children could still travel between their homes. In a series of television and radio interviews, Cabinet minister Michael Gove initially said children should not move between households, before clarifying that it was permitted.

Earlier advice for Britons to avoid gatherings was widely ignored, with people flocking to parks and beauty spots. Police will now break up gatherings of more than two people, and social events such as weddings - but not funerals - will be stopped.

Gove said stronger measures than 30-pound ($35) fines for people who flouted the new restrictions could be introduced.

A snap YouGov poll found that 93 percent of Britons supported the measures, but were split on whether fines would be a sufficient deterrent. The survey found 66 percent thought the rules would be very easy or fairly easy to follow.

Supermarkets said they had begun limiting the number of shoppers in stores at any one time and installing screens at checkouts to protect staff.

Sports Direct, a sports clothing chain owned by Frasers Group, initially indicated it would defy the order to close but later said it had asked the government for permission to open stores.

Gove said Sports Direct was not an essential shop and should close.

Police powers

There was also ambiguity regarding what powers police had to enforce the new guidance.

The government said police would have powers to break up illegal gatherings and fine people who flout the rules. But some expressed doubts about whether the lockdown could be enforced.

Britain has lost thousands of police officers during a decade of public spending and while Johnson has promised to recruit 20,000 more police officers, those efforts are still in the early stages. Unlike some other European countries, Britons do not carry ID cards, another factor complicating enforcement efforts.

Johnson has also warned that the National Health Service could be overwhelmed within weeks unless people took the lockdown seriously.

Britain's economy was now shrinking at a record pace, faster than during the 2008-09 financial crisis as businesses across the services sector are shut, according to a survey.

The government has promised hundreds of billions of pounds in loan guarantees, grants and said it will pay wages.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak was expected to announce new measures later on Tuesday to help the self-employed.



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