Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday shut down social life in Britain and ordered the most vulnerable to isolate for 12 weeks, ramping up the battle against a coronavirus outbreak just as it accelerates towards it peak.
Johnson had faced a backlash after his government took a less stringent approach to tackling the virus than countries such as Italy, France and Spain which have effectively locked down much of Europe.
In a toughening of Britain’s approach to the outbreak, Johnson closed down any remaining social life in the world’s fifth largest economy and ordered those over 70 with underlying health problems to isolate for 12 weeks from this weekend.
“I don’t think there’s really been anything like it in peacetime and we have to accept that it’s a very considerable psychological, behavioral change that we’re asking you, the public, the nation to do,” he said.
People should avoid pubs, clubs, restaurants, cinemas and theaters, the government said, though Johnson stopped short of ordering them to close. He said he hoped the venues would take a responsible approach. People should also avoid unnecessary travel and work from home where possible, he said.
This advice was particularly important in London, Johnson said, as Britain’s capital appears to be “a few weeks ahead” of the rest of the country.
The limits on social contact could last for months or at least weeks, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said, adding that the next few weeks and months would be “extraordinarily difficult” for the health service.
Health Minister Matt Hancock told parliament that non-time sensitive, elective surgery would be canceled or postponed.
Johnson said anyone with symptoms of the coronavirus should isolate along with their entire household for 14 days.
Sterling fell to its lowest against the US dollar since October while Johnson was speaking, down two thirds of a cent on the day. This economic and financial crisis, though, is not like the 2008 financial crisis, Johnson said.
“This is unlike 2008, there isn’t a systemic problem within the economy,” Johnson said. “If we can get the disease under control… then there is absolutely no reason why economies worldwide should not come roaring back.”
The British government has faced criticism for no longer testing all suspected cases of coronavirus, and Whitty said testing was critical and Britain would scale it up. Earlier on Monday the World Health Organization called on all countries to ramp up their testing program.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the United Kingdom has risen to 1,543, up from 1,372 the day before, the health ministry said on Monday. The UK death toll rose to 55.
“It looks as though we are now approaching the fast growth part of the upward curve and without drastic action cases could double every 5 or 6 days,” Johnson said.
He said it was essential to ensure “those with the most serious health conditions are largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks.”
When asked about the need for a globally coordinated response, Johnson said there was widespread agreement in the G7 that measures would be needed to make sure everyone had access to liquidity.