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Stay-home order brings Britain in line with European neighbors

Passengers squeeze onto a busy train at Stratford station in London on March 23, 2020.
Passengers squeeze onto a busy train at Stratford station in London on March 23, 2020.
(Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP/Getty Images)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, facing criticism over a coronavirus-containment strategy more lax than that of European neighbors, on Monday announced stringent new measures meant to keep people at home in the face of “the devastating impact of this invisible killer.”

With the nation’s death toll surpassing 330, Johnson told Britons they should leave their homes only for essential shopping, limited exercise, medical care and “absolutely necessary” work. Police are empowered to impose fines on violators and break up gatherings, he said.

“From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction: You must stay at home,” the prime minister said in a somber nationwide address in which he urged a “huge national effort to halt the growth of this virus.”

The move came after many Britons flouted voluntary social-distancing guidelines over the weekend, flocking to parks and beaches. And social media users documented a crowded Monday-morning commute on London’s Underground, known as the Tube.

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Like President Trump, Johnson has taken reluctant steps toward imposing isolation measures that drastically curtail economic activity. That prompted warnings from many public health experts, who said that without swift action, Britain’s chances of averting an Italy-style trajectory, with an onslaught of cases, were dimming.

Even in Italy, though, strict isolation measures appeared to be finally slowing down the death rate.

By government order, restaurants, pubs, gyms and other venues in Britain were already closed, and older residents and others who are vulnerable were advised last week to self-quarantine. But until now, Johnson’s government had eschewed the tough stay-indoors approach in countries such as Italy, Spain and France, or Germany, where more than two people congregating in public is forbidden.

Johnson said in his prime-time speech that the new rules were essential to prevent the National Health Service, Britain’s already beleaguered universal healthcare system, from being overwhelmed.

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“To put it simply, if too many people become seriously unwell at one time, the NHS will be unable to handle it — meaning more people are likely to die, not just from coronavirus but from other illnesses as well,” he said. “So it’s vital to slow the spread of the disease.”

Johnson’s announcement came hours after trains on the London Underground were packed during the Monday morning rush hour. That prompted many social media users to blast the government for seemingly exacerbating — if inadvertently — the crowding, by reducing service and closing dozens of stations.

On Sunday, Britain celebrated its equivalent of Mother’s Day — Mothering Sunday, a holiday with roots in Christianity that today is about honoring moms. Johnson used the occasion to urge voluntary curbs on togetherness.

In a message to the country, he said, “The single best present that we can give — we who owe our mothers so much — is to spare them the risk of catching a very dangerous disease.”

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But many failed to heed the warning. In southwest London, the sprawling 2,500-acre Richmond Park was closed Sunday to vehicle traffic in an attempt to curb the influx of visitors. But those living nearby said crowds exceeded those even on summer holiday weekends.

People are seen walking in Greenwich Park in London on Sunday.
People are seen walking in Greenwich Park in London on Sunday.
(Peter Summers / Getty Images)

Before the new rules were unveiled Monday night, Britain’s tabloids, which often voice full-throated disdain for bureaucratic rules, took the unaccustomed role of urging people to obey instructions to stay at least 6 feet apart and remain indoors as much as possible.

The Daily Mirror carried front-page photos of crowds packed onto a beach boardwalk with the headline “MADNESS.” The Sun newspaper displayed a similarly packed-in view of London’s Clapham Common and warned in an editorial that “irresponsible idiots” were about to prompt a crackdown in which Britons would be “forced to wave goodbye to our cherished freedoms.”

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Critics, meanwhile, took increasingly scathing aim at Johnson in the hours leading up to his address.

“No more advice. Time to lead,” Perry Maddox, CEO of the youth-led development agency Restless Development, wrote on Twitter.

But Johnson’s government seemed to lay the blame on businesses that ignored shutdown directives. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said police had been given the authority to shut down restaurants and bars that stayed open in defiance of rules announced last week.

Boyle is a special correspondent.


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