Boris Johnson plunged the UK into coronavirus lockdown tonight – ordering the immediate closure of all non-essential shops and threatening Britons with fines or even arrest if they do not ‘stay at home’.
Gatherings of more than two people will be banned in the most dramatic curbs on freedom ever seen in Britain in time of peace or war, as the government goes all out to stop the spread of the killer disease.
In a grim address to the nation from Downing Street, Mr Johnson said family reunions, weddings, baptisms and other social events must be cancelled to stop the NHS collapsing under the strain . Funerals can go ahead attended by just a handful of closest relatives.
People must only leave their homes for essential supplies, medical help, or to travel to work if it is ‘absolutely’ unavoidable. Going out for exercise will be allowed once a day, but parks will be patrolled to make sure there is no abuse of the rules.
Police will have powers to fine those who do not fall into line, and disperse any public gatherings.
Mr Johnson said his message to the public was simple: ‘You must stay at home.’
The premier was finally forced into the draconian move amid fury that many people are still flouting ‘social distancing’ guidance, with parks and Tube trains in London – regarded as the engine of the UK outbreak – still busy despite repeated pleas.
‘Though huge numbers are complying – and I thank you all – the time has now come for us all to do more,’ Mr Johnson said.
‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.
‘Because the critical thing we must do is stop the disease spreading between households.’
The government’s Cobra emergency committee met at 5pm and signed off the extraordinary new restrictions – similar to those which have already been imposed across the rest of Europe.
They will last for three weeks initially – but the government’s own experts have suggested the situation could take up to a year to resolve.
The stringent limits, which came after weeks of mounting pressure for the PM to escalate the response, were welcomed across the political spectrum – in itself a sign of the unprecedented times the country is enduring. However, police officers cautioned that their task would be ‘challenging’.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan said the rules on who was allowed to travel to work was too loose, suggesting construction employees might feel they were not covered by the ban.
The coronavirus threat was thrown into sharp relief earlier as the number of UK fatalities went up by 54 to 335 in a single day – the second biggest rise yet. The number of positive tests went up by 967, to 6,650 – although the true figure is thought to be more than 300,000.