Boris Johnson brought down the shutters on Britain on Monday night, as he announced the closure of all “non-essential shops”, told people to stay at home and warned that the police would enforce tough new measures to stop the spread of coronavirus.
After days of mounting pressure to take tougher action, Mr Johnson said in a televised address to the nation that people should stay in their home unless they had a good reason to leave and that the high street would be largely shut down.
The new measures, which will initially last for three weeks, will bring Britain more closely into line with other European countries as Mr Johnson announced draconian restrictions to stop the rapid spread of the virus.
Most shops will close with immediate effect, with only “essential” stores such as food outlets, pharmacies, petrol stations, post offices, hardware shops and newsagents allowed to stay open. Banks will also be allowed to keep their doors open.
Among the establishments ordered to shut will be clothes shops, nail bars, hotels, libraries, places of worship and communal places in parks such as playgrounds; for now, parks themselves will not be closed down.
The official list of “essential” stores has not yet been formally released, but it is expected that it will also include convenience stores, pet supplies and funeral homes. It may also include “food to go” stores, although many of these such as Greggs have already said they plan to close all their shops.
Mr Johnson told the country that only people who could not work from home should continue to travel to their workplace. Key workers such as health and care staff are exempted, so too are people working in construction and manufacturing.
People would only be allowed to leave their homes to buy essentials such as food, for medical or care purposes or to take one form of exercise a day: that could include walking, running or cycling.
Mr Johnson, speaking from Number 10, said: “From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction: you must stay at home. “If you don’t follow the rules the police will have the power to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.
“No prime minister wants to enact measures like this. I know the damage that this disruption is doing and will do to people’s lives, to their businesses and to their jobs.
“In this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted. Each and every one of us is now obliged to join together to halt the spread of this disease.”
Public gatherings of more than two people — not including family members — would be banned and the police would be deployed to break up any larger social meetings.
Emergency legislation, expected to be enacted by Thursday night, would allow fines to be levied on people breaking the rules. Government officials said they might initially be set at £30 but could rise if people continued to flout them.
Mr Johnson had resisted such draconian measures for days, but finally agreed on Monday that evidence suggested that a more “advisory” approach was not securing the government’s aim of cutting social contact by 75 per cent.
Some MPs believed Mr Johnson might have left it too late to prevent a significant loss of life. Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary, told MPs that “it may be too late to avoid Italy” — a reference to the country with the most coronavirus deaths in Europe.
Mr Hunt added: “But to have any chance we need to move to lockdown rules now that ban non-essential travel. It’s time to stop asking people to do social distancing — we must enforce it. Not this week, not tomorrow, but today.”
Until the weekend of March 16-17 the UK was adopting a “mitigation” strategy which advisers at Imperial College warned could cost 250,000 lives; it was hastily replaced by a more aggressive “suppression” approach, aimed at limiting deaths to 20,000.
Some Tory MPs argued that Mr Johnson’s “libertarian instincts” meant that he was slow to impose draconian restrictions on British society. He only closed bars and restaurants last Friday and urged — rather than ordered — people to stay indoors.
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Ministers including health secretary Matt Hancock and cabinet office minister Michael Gove wanted Mr Johnson to take a much tougher line. Emmanuel Macron, French president, warned Mr Johnson last week he would close the border with the UK unless the virus was brought under control.
“I think it’s probably more stringent than the prime minister might like to go,” said Stephen Hammond, a senior Tory MP. “He is by instinct not an authoritarian but I believe others in cabinet have been pushing him to do it.”
The British Retail Consortium, which represents many of the UK’s larger retailers, said in a statement that retailers understood the need for government to act quickly and decisively to protect public health and combat coronavirus.
“The safety of customers and staff is paramount, which is why retailers have responded swiftly and positively to evolving government guidance on social distancing and other hygiene matters,” said BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson.
“Any retailers that remain open will be following the very latest government public health guidance to ensure they do everything they can to ensure the safety of customers and staff,” she added.
However, she also called on the public to help by maintaining social distancing practices. “We must all be considerate of the needs of those around us, and respectful of the retail staff who are working round the clock to put food and other essential items on our shelves and into our homes.”
Many fashion chains have already closed their doors, with Next and Debenhams, who have almost 700 stores between them, being among the latest to announce that they will close their doors for an extended period from tonight.
In another sign of Britain preparing to hunker down for months, foreign secretary Dominic Raab announced that all UK citizens travelling abroad should return home immediately.
The Foreign Office said all British tourists and short-stay travellers — but not those permanently residing abroad — should return “while commercial flight options are still available”
Mr Raab said: “Where commercial routes don’t exist, our staff are working round the clock to give advice and support to UK nationals. If you are on holiday abroad the time to come home is now while you still can.”
Additional reporting by Jonathan Eley