London | British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has bowed to the inevitable and sent his country into COVID-19 lockdown, restricting outdoor movement to essential shopping, medical needs, solitary exercise and unavoidable travel to work.
Police will have the powers to break up gatherings of more than two people (excepting families), and all shops and institutions apart from essentials such as food and pharmaceuticals will be closed. The measures will be in place for at least three weeks.
“No prime minister wants to enact measures like this. I know the damage this is doing and will do, to people’s lives, to their businesses and to their jobs,” Mr Johnson said in a sombre televised address on Monday night (Tuesday morning AEDT).
“There are just no easy options. The way ahead is hard and it is still true that many lives will sadly be lost. And yet it is also clear that there is a way through.”
This marks a huge escalation from a reluctant convert to the lockdown strategy. Britain has persistently been Europe’s outlier on taking extreme measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Since the weekend even fellow Anglo-Saxon countries like Australia and the United States had begun moving faster, and further.
The libertarian and optimism-spouting Mr Johnson has spent a week of daily press conferences resisting the inevitable tide, even as almost every other European country shuttered economic and social life. But he has now been swept along.
Mr Johnson was forced into action after a weekend in which Britons, like Australians, flocked to beaches, parks and markets – ignoring the increasingly grave crisis overtaking the public health system.
The same day, France stepped up its already tough social restrictions, and the Netherlands – another libertarian outlier like Britain – also acted. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he’d had to act following widespread public indifference, although he again stopped short of a full lockdown.
Gatherings of more than three people have been banned, and Dutch mayors will be able to close parks, beaches and campsites, as well as enforcing the 1.5-metre social distancing rule, including in all shops. They can levy stiff fines between €400 and €4000 ($738 to $7830).
Britain has identified 6650 cases and suffered 335 deaths, while the Netherlands, with about one-third the population, has tallied 4749 cases and 213 deaths.
Britain’s school closures came into effect on Monday, with 90 per cent of pupils reportedly staying away There’s an exemption for children with a parent working in health, food distribution or retail, security and some other professions, if the parents can’t find any alternative childcare.
Mr Johnson’s announcement came shortly after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab advised all British nationals who weren’t permanently residing abroad to return to Britain as soon as possible.
“Around the world, more airlines are suspending flights and more airports are closing, some without any notice,” he said in a statement. “If you are on holiday abroad the time to come home is now, while you can.”
He said the British government was working with airlines to keep routes open for long enough to get international travellers home on commercial flights. Where it was already too late for that, the Foreign Office was trying to help stranded Britons.
Sign of slowing infections in Europe
In a rare moment of good news on Monday, the northern Italian region of Lombardy – the epicentre of the European outbreak, which has been in quarantine for nearly a month – is starting to see a slowdown in the rate of new infections.
There were 1555 cases recorded in Lombardy on Monday, down from a daily increase of 1691 on Sunday and 3200 on Saturday. The rate has also slowed somewhat across Italy more broadly, as the country enters a third week of lockdown.
“It is perhaps the first positive day of this very hard month,” said Lombardy welfare councillor Giulio Gallera. “It is not a time to relax and sing victory, but we see light at the end of the tunnel.”
If the trend picks up, it may give some succour to markets that are watching case and fatality rates as closely as they track Federal Reserve moves and fiscal stimulus announcements.
“We think that monetary and fiscal support are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a sustained turnaround in markets,” said Capital Economics’ group chief economist Neil Shearing.
“A lasting recovery in markets is unlikely until we also see clear evidence that the global spread of coronavirus is slowing, allowing lockdowns to end.”
The news was less encouraging from France, still in only its second week of lockdown, which recorded its biggest daily death rate to date: 186 people, for a total of 860. Its register of confirmed cases ballooned nearly 20 per cent to 19,856.
In Germany though, there are already signs of a slowing in the infection rate. “We are seeing signs that the exponential growth curve is flattening off slightly,” said Lothar Wieler, director of the country’s national health agency the Robert Koch Institute. “But I will only be able to confirm this trend definitively on Wednesday.”
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