U.K. Warns of Further Crackdown If Britons Ignore Virus Advice
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The U.K. warned it will impose tighter restrictions if Britons fail to follow government calls to stop non-essential travel and gatherings to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“This isn’t a game, it is very serious,” Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News when asked if the government was considering a fuller lockdown to tackle the pandemic. “If people don’t follow that advice then clearly we’ll have to consider other options, but none of us want to go down that route.”
The U.K.’s Sunday newspapers reported that people were still gathering in parks and making trips to coastal towns after the government last week ordered pubs and restaurants across the country to close. On Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the country’s health care system is as little as two weeks away from being swamped, as happened in Italy.
The latest data show a significant jump in Britain’s death toll, to 233 from 177. The total number of cases is above 5,000 with the disease spreading fastest in the capital. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said police may need additional powers to enforce so-called social distancing if gatherings don’t stop.
“Unless people stay home, unless people stop using public transport, unless people stop interacting with each other, more people will die,” Khan told the BBC. “Please, please, please, stop mixing and stay at home.”
Johnson’s national government came under criticism over its response in the early weeks of the crisis, with medical experts calling for more urgent action to contain the pandemic. Tighter measures came in a rush last week, with schools and leisure facilities ordered to close, and people instructed to stay indoors. The government is now telling 1.5 million people with underlying health issues to self-isolate for at least three months.
But Jenrick’s comments are unlikely to shake the sense that the government is still playing catchup, in terms of social measures and boosting capacity for the National Health Service.
The situation is “deeply worrying” and the next week will be “absolutely critical,” Jeremy Hunt, the U.K.’s longest-serving health secretary from 2012 to 2018, told Sky News. “It’s very, very disappointing when people don’t obey the simple instructions that are being given out.”
The NHS faces a shortage of ventilators and virus testing kits. Jenrick told the BBC a new antibody test — which Johnson has called a “game changer” because it will show who has already had the disease — will be available in the coming weeks.
He also said the government had already received some prototype ventilators from the private sector, and has boosted the total number to 12,000 from 5,000 at the start of last week. He rejected claims the government had been too slow to react to the crisis as it developed in other countries.
But he warned it would take time for the impact of measures to halt the virus to be visible, and said Johnson’s statement that the U.K. would “turn the tide” in three months did not mean the end of the crisis.
“No one is pretending this will be over in 12 weeks,” he said.
Last week, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak rolled out anunprecedented support package for U.K. workers, with the government stepping in to pay up to 80% of the wages of at-risk jobs, at a potential cost of at least 10 billion pounds ($11.6 billion).
On Sunday, Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, welcomed the support but told Sky News more must be done to help the country’s estimated 5 million self-employed. Jenrick said doing so is more complicated than salaried workers but that Sunak is keeping the issue under review.
“If we need to do more, we will do it,” Jenrick said.
In a further potential political headache, Johnson faces a revolt over his emergency coronavirus legislation when he tries to fast-track it through Parliament next week. A group of cross-party members of parliament — including prominent Conservatives David Davis and Andrew Mitchell — want to shorten its duration from the government’s planned two years.
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