LONDON (Reuters) – Britain went into virtual lockdown on Tuesday to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but London underground trains were crammed and streets were far from deserted amid confusion over the government’s advice to workers.
In a TV message on Monday evening watched by more than 27 million people, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered people to stay at home, banned social gatherings and said nearly all shops must close.
The unprecedented peacetime restrictions, which will last at least three weeks, are intended to stop the state-run National Health Service (NHS) being overwhelmed after the number of deaths from the coronavirus in Britain rose to 335.
However, critics said the government was sowing confusion by not immediately offering financial support to the self-employed or explaining clearly who should still go to work.
“I hope that people will follow this advice. If for any reason they don’t, penalties are there,” Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told BBC TV. “People must stay at home to protect themselves, to protect the NHS and to save lives.”
Despite the message for people to stay at home, some roads, while far quieter than usual, were still busy and utility workmen and others were still mingling close together.
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 will now break up gatherings of more than two people, and social events such as weddings – but not funerals – will be stopped.
Gove said stronger measures than 30-pound ($35) fines for people who flouted the new restrictions could be introduced.
But even he contradicted himself on whether children of separated parents could move from one household to the other, initially saying it should stop, but then saying it was allowed.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, a survey showed Britain’s economy was now shrinking at a record pace, faster than during the 2008-09 financial crisis, as businesses across the services sector close down. [nL8N2BH4XY]
Additional reporting by Sarah Young, Paul Sandle, James Davey and David Milliken; Writing by Michael Holden and Giles Elgood, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Stephen Addison