Britain’s leaders on Tuesday urged people to respect an unprecedented countrywide lockdown, saying that following advice to stay at home would stop people dying of coronavirus.
“Unless you stay at home, then the people you love most may die,” senior minister Michael Gove said in a round of broadcast interviews.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson late on Monday bowed to pressure to follow other European countries in shutting most shops and services, as the death toll reached 335.
Many streets were deserted on Tuesday morning, although reduced traffic still circulated in London and construction workers were being allowed to stay on site.
Pictures on social media showed packed rush-hour trains on the London Underground “Tube” network, but this is partly as a result of a dramatic reduction in services.
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Johnson said people must stay inside except to buy essentials and take daily exercise, but there were questions about how the new rules will be enforced.
“For those people who are determined to flout the rules, the police will have the tools in order to ensure that those people are penalised and punished”, Gove said, citing the risk of a fine.
– Police ‘very stretched’ –
But Britain’s police forces were thinly spread even before the outbreak, which has caused further shortages due to officers self-isolating.
Peter Fahy, the former head of police in Manchester, said clarification was needed, particularly on how to enforce a new rule banning gatherings of more than two people.
“Our police officers are already very stretched,” he told BBC television.
“It will require a huge amount of public support, public acceptance and public compliance.”
Britain has been slower than some of its neighbours to impose a shutdown to tackle the outbreak of COVID-19 sweeping the globe.
Johnson insists he has been following the scientific advice, but many commentators suggest his instinctive dislike of telling people what to do has played a part.
Last week, the government told people to maintain ‘social distancing’ and on Friday shut pubs, restaurants and cafes — only to see crowds of people packing parks and beaches over the sunny weekend.
“You must stay at home,” Johnson told the country in a televised address, which broadcast industry analysts said was watched by 27 million people, calling the situation a “national emergency”.
– ‘Eerily quiet’ –
AFP reporters on Tuesday morning reported quiet streets with shops shuttered and pavements emptied except for joggers.
On Hampstead Heath, one of London’s most popular open spaces, many people were out for an early morning walk with their dog or for a run.
Most followed park signs to keep two metres away from each other.
One south London supermarket was doing brisk trade from the minute it opened at 6:00 am (0600 GMT), although most shoppers were keeping apart.
One shop assistant said she had been worried about being stopped going into work.
“I got in at 4:30 am and the roads were eerily quiet. My manager told me to bring proof of where I work in case the police stopped me,” she told AFP but added she was not checked.
In Edinburgh, which relies on tourism, tour guides, buses, bagpipers on street corners were nowhere to be seen, as the Scottish capital turned into a ghost town.
The popular statue of Greyfriars Bobby — a Skye terrier who won hearts for guarding his master’s grave in the late 1800s — was covered by a medical face mask.
Johnson’s government has already announced unprecedented measures to help businesses and workers hit by the economic fallout, as latest statistics showed a record slump in industrial output.
New help is expected for the self-employed.
Lawmakers are also debating proposed emergency legislation to tackle the outbreak.