The UK public are only allowed to venture out of their homes for essential supplies and one exercise outing per day, or face fines, under new measures introduced this evening by the prime minister.
In a recorded address filmed in No 10 Downing Street, Boris Johnson said the police will have the power to disperse groups of more than two people, and levy on-the-spot fines for people flouting the new rules.
He said: “You should not be meeting friends. If your friends ask you to meet, you should say ‘No’. You should not be meeting family members who do not live in your home. You should not be going shopping except for essentials like food and medicine – and you should do this as little as you can.”
“If you don’t follow the rules the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.”
The measures come as the government battles to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which threatens to overwhelm hospitals if its transmission in the population is not slowed down, and follow Friday’s announcement that most retailers, and all restaurants, pubs, bars, theatres, cinemas and gyms were ordered to close their doors.
Johnson’s “instruction” to the British people echoes similar restrictions introduced in Italy and Spain, though do not go as far as those introduced in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated, and where detention by authorities was also a part of the arsenal of state control.
Johnson added: “Without a huge national effort to halt the growth of this virus, there will come a moment when no health service in the world could possibly cope because there won’t be enough ventilators, enough intensive care beds, enough doctors and nurses.
“And as we have seen elsewhere in other countries that also have fantastic health care systems, that is the moment of real danger. 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. So it’s vital to slow the spread of the disease.”
It is thought Johnson was reluctant to introduce such draconian rules but after a weekend in which news reports showed dozens of instances of the public crowding onto beaches and into markets, it was clear the necessary level of ‘social distancing’ was not being exercised voluntarily by the public.
He did not state how long the measures will be in place.
Last week the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, announced a business support package unprecendented in its scale and function, including wage grants to employers to furlough their staff instead of laying them off while the various economy-squeezing regulations are in place.