Boris Johnson’s face bore the strain of the past three weeks, during which coronavirus went from being a distant menace to one that threatened to consume Britain’s economy, spread death across the country and dominate his premiership.
The British prime minister has gone in a matter of days from advising people to wash their hands to planning the closure of London, followed by the rest of the country; government officials expect the capital to be locked down as early as Friday.
As the UK death toll jumped by 33 to 104 — and with the pound crashing around him — a pale-faced Mr Johnson announced at a press conference plans to close the country’s schools, declaring: “We will not hesitate to go further and faster in the days and weeks ahead.”
While Mr Johnson was addressing the country, officials were being briefed on plans to close down London — the worst affected part of Britain — as early as Friday, with police being put on standby to prevent the possible looting of deserted town centres.
According to one person briefed on the proposal, there would be a full lockdown of the capital with only one person allowed to leave home at a time, with no entry to local shopping areas.
Supermarkets would be guarded by police, while pharmacies would be among the few other shops to remain open.
Two officials briefed on the proposals said residents and business would be given just 12 hours’ notice of the new restrictions. They could initially be in place for about a fortnight.
Mr Johnson did not deny that plans for a lockdown existed, and his allies say only that “the situation is moving fast”. A number of senior Whitehall officials have told the Financial Times they expect the plan to be implemented in London on Friday.
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Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak, Mr Johnson’s chancellor, and Andrew Bailey, the Bank of England governor, were drawing up plans to prevent coronavirus laying waste to the British economy. Tory MPs now talk about the risk of the “D word”: depression.
Elected with an 80-seat House of Commons majority in December, Mr Johnson had anticipated at least four years of untrammelled power, but like other world leaders his authority has been challenged by an invisible enemy.
The speed with which the crisis has escalated has taken Mr Johnson — and the scientists upon whose advice he has been acting — by surprise, although few around the world predicted chaos on such a grand scale so soon.
Mr Johnson said he would have to lead something akin to a “wartime government” and he did nothing to deny the widespread expectation that London could be closed down as part of an escalating attempt to halt the virus.
Asked about a possible shutdown, he said: “We don’t rule out — and it would be wrong to do so — taking further and faster measures in due course.”
It was only a week ago that Mr Sunak announced an apparently generous £12bn package of support for the economy to cope with the crisis; this week he announced £330bn of loan guarantees and a further £20bn in fiscal support.
But that is only the start, as Mr Sunak has admitted, and the chancellor will this week announce a massive package of measures to try to keep people in work and to help those laid off as the crisis deepens.
Mr Johnson hinted that Britain was about to become a very different place, saying that while he cherished freedom, the country was about to be asked to make sacrifices: “These are very, very important choices we are making in our daily lives.”