Britain in lockdown as virus death toll leaps

LONDON (Reuters) – The United Kingdom went into lockdown on Tuesday as the number of coronavirus deaths jumped and the government called for 250,000 volunteers for the health service, as it announced a temporary hospital would open in London with help from the military.

In a TV message on Monday evening watched by more than 27 million people, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered people to stay at home, nearly all shops to close and banned social gatherings including weddings and baptisms.

However, public transport in London was busy during the morning rush hour, and the streets were far from deserted amid confusion over the government’s advice to workers.

The death toll from coronavirus in the United Kingdom has jumped by 87 to a total of 422 – the biggest daily increase since the crisis began.

Meanwhile, the economic devastation was underscored by a survey that suggested the economy was shrinking at a record pace, faster than during the 2008-09 financial crisis.

The unprecedented peacetime restrictions announced by Johnson, which will last at least three weeks, are intended to stop the state-run National Health Service (NHS), which suffers from staff shortages at the best of times, being overwhelmed.

“These measures are not advice, they are rules and will be enforced, including by the police,” health minister Matt Hancock told parliament.

At a news conference later, Hancock announced plans to open a temporary hospital next week at the Excel Centre, a huge venue in east London normally used for trade fairs and similar events.

“The NHS Nightingale hospital will comprise two wards each of 2,000 people. With the help of the military and with NHS clinicians we will make sure that we have the capacity that we need so that everyone can get the support they need,” he said.

He also called for 250,000 volunteers to help the NHS with shopping, delivery of medicines and to support those who are shielded at home to protect their own health.


Despite the message for people to stay at home, some roads, while quieter than usual, were still busy and utility workmen and others were still mingling close together.

People jog in Battersea Park, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in London, Britain, March 24, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

As the evening rush hour intensified, road traffic in London was down by 43 percent on average levels seen at the same time in 2019, according to data from the TomTom application.

Social media images showed the capital’s underground trains were packed with passengers closer than the 2-metre (6-foot) recommended distance apart and the government said “appropriate” construction work should continue.

“The government needs to urgently provide clearer guidance on who should be working and who shouldn’t,” said Rebecca Long-Bailey, the opposition Labour Party’s business spokeswoman. “No one should be asked to work if they are not providing an essential function in this crisis.”

Under the curbs on movement, people should leave their homes only for very limited reasons such as going to supermarkets for vital supplies or for exercise once a day.

Earlier advice for Britons to avoid gatherings was widely ignored, with people flocking to parks and beauty spots. Police, who will be able to issue fines, will now break up gatherings of more than two people.

A snap YouGov poll found that 93 percent of Britons supported the measures but were split on whether fines would be a sufficient deterrent. The survey found 66 percent thought the rules would be very easy or fairly easy to follow.

Supermarkets, where shelves have been stripped bare by panic-buying in recent days, said they had begun limiting the number of shoppers in stores at any one time, erecting barriers outside, and installing screens at checkouts to protect staff.

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Last week, the government announced billions of pounds of help for businesses and said it would help to pay the wages of employees, giving grants to cover 80% of a worker’s salary if they were kept on as staff.

But critics said it did not provide support for the self-employed, who total about 5 million in Britain compared to roughly 28 million employees, meaning they either had to keep working or risk losing all income.

“Without removing the agonizing choice between health and hardship, then the positive measures announced by the chancellor last week will be overshadowed and public health efforts will be severely compromised,” said Len McCluskey, general secretary of one of Britain’s largest unions, Unite.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak told parliament the government was working on measures to help self-employed people, but said these had to be practical and fair.

Additional reporting by Sarah Young, Paul Sandle, James Davey and David Milliken; writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Stephen Addison

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