The virus has been spreading faster in London than any other part of the country despite government advice to refrain from all social contact and unnecessary travel and work from home as far as possible.
- PTI London
- Last Updated: March 19, 2020, 5:30 PM IST
The UK capital is headed for much tougher lockdown measures within days as London remains the country’s coronavirus hotspot, with over a third of the UK’s 2,626 confirmed cases, at 953.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted on Wednesday that Britain remains a “land of liberty” but did not rule out a further crackdown on London, where the virus has been spreading faster than any other part of the country despite government advice to refrain from all social contact and unnecessary travel and work from home as far as possible.
“I have to tell you we will rule nothing out and we will certainly wish to consider bringing forward further and faster measures where that is necessary to suppress the peak of the epidemic to protect our NHS [National Health Service], to minimise casualties, and to minimise suffering,” he said during his daily Downing Street briefing when asked about bringing in measures similar to those in place across the border in France where citizens require paperwork to justify their movements out and about.
“Absolutely we do not rule it out, because it would be quite wrong to do so. We do not rule out taking further and faster measures in due course,” Johnson said.
As the death toll from COVID-19 hit 104, the UK Cabinet Office has reportedly asked government departments to draw up plans that would force cafes, pubs and restaurants to close and drastically reduce the Underground Tube, rail and bus service network.
Transport for London is already putting in place plans for the closure of up to 40 Tube stations, with most Underground lines set to run heavily-reduced services across the capital.
“People should not be travelling, by any means, unless they really, really have to,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a direct plea to Londoners.
Johnson also appealed for people to take the self-isolation advice seriously: “I am a believer in freedom. But let us be in absolutely no doubt that these are very, very important choices we are now making.
“The more closely, the more strictly, the more ruthlessly we can enforce upon ourselves, our families, the advice the fewer deaths we will have.”
The move came as he announced the closure of schools indefinitely from Friday and cancelled annual board level exams scheduled for May and June. Provisions are being made for the children of key workers in the healthcare and delivery of essentials sectors so that parents are able to carry on their work.
The Army is also preparing to provide support during the pandemic, with the number of troops in a heightened state of readiness to be doubled to 20,000 and Reserves to be placed on standby to support public services in a new “COVID support force”.
The Ministry of Defence is also planning to put 150 military personnel into training to drive oxygen tankers around the country to support the NHS.
Emergency laws will be introduced in Parliament later to provide new powers to deal with the pandemic. The Coronavirus Bill includes provisions for border controls, ways of boosting the NHS workforce and making it easier to register a death. The government says the measures will only be used when necessary and have a time limit of two years.
The Opposition Labour Party is calling for a fresh vote on the legislation every six months, labelling the plans as “far-reaching”.
The UK’s 1984 Public Health Control of Diseases Act already allows for individuals to be kept in isolation for their own safety and could also be brought into use.