By William James and Andy Bruce
LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered Britons on Monday to stay at home to halt the spread of 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, Johnson said in a televised address to the nation.
Johnson had 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.
Deaths from the virus in Britain jumped 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.
“From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home,” Johnson said in a televised address, replacing his daily news conference.
They would only be allowed to leave their homes to shop for basic necessities, exercise, for a medical need, to provide care or traveling to and from work where absolutely necessary.
“That’s all – these are the only reasons you should leave your home,” he 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.
The new measures https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/full-guidance-on-staying-at-home-and-away-from-others would be reviewed in three weeks, and relaxed if possible.
“These rules are not optional,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said.
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.
The government will close all shops selling non-essential goods, Johnson said, including clothing stores, as well as other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship.
The British Retail Consortium said shop owners understood the gravity of the situation.
The tougher tone followed evidence at the weekend that many were ignoring official guidelines about social distancing as they flocked to parks and beauty spots.
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 would remain open for exercise but gatherings would be dispersed, Johnson said.
Later on Monday, Britain’s lower house of parliament is expected to approve emergency legislation giving 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 growth 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.
Earlier, in a letter pleading with him to increase PPE supplies, more than 6,000 frontline doctors warned 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.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted there had been issues but promised action was being taken. He said the army would drive trucks throughout the day and night to get supplies to medical staff.
“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,” he told the BBC, saying the health service now had 12,000 ventilators, 7,000 more than at the start of the crisis.
(Reporting by Kate Holton, Sarah Young, Costas Pitas, David Milliken, Elizabeth Howcroft, Alistair Smout and Andrew MacAskill; Writing by Michael Holden and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Stephen Addison)