Boris Johnson’s “stay at home” lockdown has been backed by political opponents, business leaders and trade unions, despite fears of major job losses on the high street.
The prime minister has ordered all shops apart from food stores and chemists to close immediately for at least three weeks and banned more than one form of daily exercise and gatherings of more than two people.
But his dramatic announcement – in a momentous TV address – of sweeping restrictions on daily life, with fines of between £30 and £1,000 for people who flout the new rules, has won grudging support.
In a move bringing the UK into line with most of Europe, Mr Johnson has declared a “moment of national emergency” and closed shops selling “non-essential goods”, along with playgrounds, libraries and churches.
And while he was reluctant to introduce such tough measures, it is claimed a mutiny threatened by senior cabinet ministers forced him to back demands from his medical and scientific advisers for a crackdown.
People will only be allowed to leave their home for “very limited” purposes:
- Shopping for basic necessities, as infrequently as possible
- One form of exercise a day – for example a run, walk, or cycle – alone or with members of your household
- Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person
- Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home
Mr Johnson’s sombre broadcast came as the government’s Coronavirus Bill, the emergency legislation containing sweeping powers to impose a lockdown, completed its passage through the Commons in a single day.
It now moves to the House of Lords and is on course to become law by the end of this week, enabling the government to enforce the measures announced by the PM, which go far beyond anything seen in wartime.
These measures will come into force immediately:
- Closing all shops selling non-essential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship
- Closing hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts, campsites, caravan parks, and boarding houses for commercial/leisure use (excluding permanent residents and key workers)
- Stopping all gatherings of more than two people in public – excluding people you live with
- Stopping all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals
Despite bringing down the shutters on most of the UK, the PM is allowing corner shops, petrol stations, parks, post offices, vets, pet shops, hardware stores, banks, newsagents, laundrettes and undertakers to stay open.
Explaining the government’s decision, he said in his address: “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.”
Later, after the shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for a lockdown, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “The prime minister is right to call for people to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.
“This is the right response to the coronavirus pandemic, and one we have been calling for.”
But Mr Corbyn added: “There now needs to be clear guidance to employers and workers about which workplaces should close – and the government must close the loopholes to give security to all workers, including the self-employed, as well as renters and mortgage holders.”
London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, said: “I welcome these new rules and am directly asking all Londoners to follow them at all times in order to save lives.
“These rules are not optional. They are instructions put in place to prevent the spread of this virus. You must follow them.
“Anyone who knows me, knows my liberal instincts, and I do not take this lightly – but these unprecedented circumstances require extraordinary measures.”
The acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Ed Davey, said: “Many people will be anxious about the steps the government has taken, but it is the right decision to restrict our normal way of life to tackle this crisis.
“We must do all we can to stop the spread of this virus and I urge people to play their part by following the measures that have been set out, and not risk their own or others’ health and wellbeing by ignoring these.
“There are legitimate questions as to whether this step should have been taken sooner and how well the advice of experts is being communicated with the public.”
Even the prime minister’s strongest critics in the trade unions acknowledged that the lockdown was necessary, though they demanded better protection for workers.
Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said: “The prime minister’s statement illustrates the gravity of the situation. This is a national health emergency and every resource, business and community in the country must be laser-focused, pulling together to do what needs to be done to protect public health.
“The message to employers is clear – be responsible, help workers be part and parcel of the essential efforts to support the nation. Keep workers and their families safe. That means turn to the government’s job retention scheme to pay wages to keep households afloat. Please, do not sack workers – use the mechanisms that we have persuaded this government to bring in to avert mass hardship.
“But I also say to the government, you are very aware that there are very many millions of people in this country with insecure employment and wages. They need your urgent assistance. They desperately want to heed this clear public health message but they need to know that the awful false choice between health and hardship has been removed.”
UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “Now the UK has also gone into lockdown, we must all abide by the rules. Irresponsible behaviour will spread the virus and place an intolerable burden on the NHS.
“Health workers are on the front line trying to save lives. By staying home we can all do our bit and help keep them safe too.”
From the business community, the CBI’s director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said: “Protecting the public will protect businesses in the long run.
“These latest measures will of course present great challenges, disrupting daily lives and the normal run of business. But we all owe it to each other to act responsibly, both people and businesses.
“The economic support the Government is providing and the determination of firms to support their employees mean together that the right action can be taken to protect lives and livelihoods.”
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers understand the need for government to act quickly and decisively to protect public health and combat coronavirus.
“The safety of customers and staff is paramount, which is why retailers have responded swiftly and positively to evolving government guidance on social distancing and other hygiene matters. Indeed, many retailers had gone further and already closed shops temporarily.”
And the British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall said: “Businesses must play their part to help limit the spread of coronavirus.
“As the UK goes into lockdown, ministers must be crystal-clear about which businesses can continue to operate, and those which must now shut their doors.
“The new restrictions make it all the more important that the massive package of financial support announced by ministers last week is delivered to firms and employees on the ground as quickly as possible.”