U.K. Steps In to Save Railways as Johnson Warns of Lockdown

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The U.K. government stepped in to shore up the country’s rail operators after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Britons they face “tougher measures” to fight the coronavirus outbreak, including a potential full lockdown if they continue to ignore calls to stop social gatherings.

The Department for Transport said on Monday that it will take on the revenue and cost risk for the nation’s rail services for six months, with operators continuing to manage day-to-day services for a “a small predetermined management fee.”

With the U.K.’s weekend newspapers full of reports about people meeting in parks and traveling to coastal towns, the prime minister said his government may be forced to take more stringent methods to enforce social distancing, and will consider options over the next 24 hours. The U.K. death toll surged to 281 on Sunday from 177 on Friday, with total cases rising above 5,500.

“We need to think about the kinds of measures that we’ve seen elsewhere, other countries that have been forced to bring in restrictions on people’s movements altogether,” Johnson said at a televised news conference on Sunday. “Some people are not making it easy for us because they are congregating in a way that helps spread the disease.”

‘Nothing Off Table’

Health Secretary Matt Hancock doubled down on that message on Monday, telling BBC TV “nothing is off the table” when it comes to tackling the outbreak. He later told BBC radio the police had been given powers to shut pubs, bars and restaurants if they weren’t already heeding the government instruction to close.

This week, the government will seek to fast-track emergency legislation through Parliament, giving it more power to close meeting places and detain people who are a danger to public health. The measures reflect the growing sense of crisis, with Johnson warning on Saturday that theNational Health Service is as little as two weeks away from being swamped.

But in a potential complication for Johnson, the government faces a revolt in the House of Commons over the draft legislation. A group of cross-party MPs — including prominent Conservatives David Davis and Andrew Mitchell — want to shorten the law’s duration from the government’s planned two years.

Davis told BBC radio on Monday he’d like to see the bill shortened to a year, and that if the government needs an extension of the powers, it should draft a new bill after nine months, incorporating all its learnings.

‘Rubber Stamp’

“You’ve got a 300-page bill being looked at in one day, you have a one-day debate and it’s take it or leave it,” Davis said. “It turns into a rubber stamp.”

Though not yet a setback — Johnson has an 80-vote majority in Parliament’s elected lower chamber to play with — it’s an unwelcome development for a government seeking to exert control over a crisis. Its early response drew criticism from medical experts demanding more urgent action.

Johnson responded by implementing a series of tougher measures last week, with schools and leisure facilities ordered to close, and people instructed to stay indoors. The latest move is to tell 1.5 million people with severe underlying health issues to self-isolate for at least three months. The government pledged to use local councils and even military personnel to ensure they get the food and medicines they need.

Action to shore up the railways adds to three packages of emergency assistance to businesses and workers announced in the past two weeks by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. Rail services are being reduced from Monday, with the government calling for a halt to non-essential travel, including to second homes or holiday homes.

Support Package

Some of that support to business became available on Monday, with the Treasury opening its Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme to applications from small and medium-sized companies. The Bank of England’sCovid Corporate Financing Facility has also opened, allowing firms to raise working capital by selling short-term corporate debt.

In other developments:

  • Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said Sunday an antibody test to show if people had already had the virus will be available in weeks
  • Jenrick also told the BBC the NHS now has 12,000 ventilators available, up from 5,000 last week, and the government has also received prototypes from the private sector

Until Sunday, the prime minister had publicly resisted calls to emulate countries including Italy, France and Spain in implementing tight restrictions on citizens’ movement.

International Pressure

According to the French newspaper Liberation, President Emmanuel Macron called Johnson on Friday morning to tell him that France would close its borders to travelers from Britain if Johnson didn’t take more steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus — hours before the British prime minister ordered pubs, restaurants and leisure centers to close.

A U.K. official said the decision was made purely on scientific advice and was always in the government’s road map for dealing with the outbreak.

But with the disease spreading rapidly and the death toll rising, Johnson struck an at times exasperated tone on Sunday as he laid out the option of a stricter social distancing regime. He made clear it was not his preference.

“It’s so important that that pleasure and that ability is preserved, but it can only really be preserved if everybody acts responsibly,” Johnson said of curtailing people’s right to go outside if they don’t keep to social distancing rules. “If we can’t do that then, yes, I’m afraid we’re going to have to bring forward tougher measures.”

— With assistance by Stuart Biggs, and Olivia Konotey-Ahulu

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