UK closes down social life as coronavirus outbreak accelerates

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday shut down social life in Britain and ordered the elderly infirm to isolate for 12 weeks, ramping up the battle against the coronavirus outbreak just as it accelerates towards it peak.

Men in protective suits pretend to clean the cabinet as part of a stunt for social media as the number of coronavirus cases (COVID-19) grows around the world, in London, Britain, March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Simon Dawson

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 sharp 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.

“What we are announcing today is a very substantial change in the way that we want people to live their lives and I can’t remember anything like it in my life time,” Johnson, 55, said at a news conference in Number 10 Downing Street, flanked by the government’s top scientist and top doctor.

“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.

The limits on social contact could last for months or at least weeks, Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty said.

Johnson said anyone with symptoms of the coronavirus should isolate along with their entire household for 14 days. Home working, he said, should begin in earnest.

Sterling fell to its lowest against the U.S. 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 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 53.

“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.

“We are going to need to make sure everybody has access to liquidity,” he said. “If we do things jointly then I think that the global markets will understand that we’re all operating in the same sort of fiscal framework and I think we’ll be much more successful that way.”

Slideshow (6 Images)

Johnson faced a backlash on Monday over his decision to keep schools open, with angry parents keeping their children at home and complaining that other countries were doing more to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Britain may need to close schools to slow the spread of coronavirus but now is not the time for this, the government’s chief scientific advisor, Patrick Vallance, said.

“At some point, as we’ve said, it may be necessary to think about things like school closures. But those things, again, need to be done at the right time in the right way, at the right stage of the outbreak,” Vallance said.

Reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Elizabeth Howcroft, Elizabeth Piper, David Milliken, William Schomberg, Paul Sandle and Estelle Shirbon; editing by Kate Holton/Guy Faulconbridge

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