By DANICA KIRKA AND PAN PYLAS
LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minster Boris Johnson has ordered the closure of most retail stores and banned gatherings for three in a stepped-up response to slow the new coronavirus.
The measures Johnson announced in an address to the nation on Monday night are more closely aligned with sweeping actions taken in France, Spain and Italy but mark a departure from the British government’s until-now more relaxed approach to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
Britain has already closed schools, bars an restaurants and urged people to stay home. But while many followed the instructions, some did not.
The approach has led to confusion, and caused alarm by public officials worried about the ever escalating numbers of cases.
There were growing calls for the government to impose tighter restrictions with more rigorous enforcement.
Johnson said that he was giving “the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home.’’
He offered a list of limited purposes for which leaving home would be allowed, including essential shopping, medical appointments and one form of exercise a day.
BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to address the nation later Monday amid mounting speculation that he is to announce more draconian restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
Johnson has come under mounting pressure to introduce tougher measures in response to the virus pandemic, including an Italy-style nationwide lockdown, after many people were seen out in public over the weekend not properly observing the government’s social distancing recommendations.
Officials at Snowdonia National Park in Wales, which had its “busiest visitor weekend in living memory,” has urged the government to be more explicit with its social distancing advice. They said all the main parking lots would be closed and that they are “exploring options to close down the most popular mountains and sites if the situation continues.”
Responding to the visibly high use of parks and the London Underground during the virus pandemic, London Mayor Sadiq Khan implored people to stay at home unless they “absolutely need to” move about the city.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock expressed frustration as well. Hancock said the government would consider locking down the country if the public kept disregarding calls to stop mingling in groups. Hancock described those not heeding official recommendations to stay two meters apart from others as “very selfish.”
The U.K. had the 10th-highest number of virus cases in the world, 5,903, and the sixth-highest number of virus-related deaths as of Monday, according to tallies from Johns Hopkins University. British government figures showed that 54 more people with the virus had died since Sunday, bringing the country’s total to 335.
New infections are increasing at an exponential rate, raising concern that the country will be on a trajectory like Italy’s in a week or two if containment efforts are not successful.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever or coughing. But for some older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Over 100,000 people have recovered, mostly in China.
But in the U.K, photos of people enjoying the sunny weekend outdoors and of London Underground trains packed with individuals afraid of losing jobs are giving the British government pause.
The prime minister’s spokesman, James Slack, said the government was analyzing data on public transit use, foot traffic in stores and park visits to gauge whether people were practicing proper social distancing.
“If that data shows they haven’t stopped. then we will need to take further measures,” Slack said. “We won’t hesitate to do so, and we will do so quickly.”
While Britain has ordered bars and restaurants to close, the government’s repeated urging for people only to go out only for essential reasons such as food shopping or to exercise has offered wiggle room to a public unaccustomed to confinement.
With health officials warning that thousands could die if action was not taken immediately, the government’s messages have become more dire,and its willingness to entertain a nationwide lockdown like the ones imposed in Spain and Italy more serious.
“This is not the sort of thing that anybody would want to do, but, of course, it is the sort of thing we might have to do in order to protect life,’’ Hancock told Sky News. “If you do go out, you must not get closer than two meters from someone who isn’t in your household.’’
Hancock suggested the military would be brought in to help distribute protective equipment to the National Health Service in what he characterized as a “war effort”.
“It is a war against this virus,’’ Hancock told the BBC. “The army have been incredibly helpful in getting those logistics so we can get the supplies to protect people on the front line.”
Hancock said the equipment was like having “armor” to guard against the virus.
The British government has also updated its travel advice in response to the pandemic and is now urging all British travelers to return home as soon as possible.
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