LONDON/PARIS • Britain yesterday ramped up its response to the escalating coronavirus outbreak with the government imposing unprecedented peacetime measures prompted by scientific advice that infections and deaths would spiral without drastic action.
More firms sent staff to work from home and public transport emptied after the government called for an end to "non-essential" social contact and unnecessary travel, as confirmed Covid-19 cases climbed to more than 1,500 and deaths rose to 55.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab advised citizens against all non-essential travel overseas for the next 30 days.
More stringent restrictions are expected in the coming days, including forcing people with serious health conditions to stay at home for three months to ease the pressure on health services.
The government was due to set out details of emergency laws in Parliament later in the day.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had faced criticism for his approach to the pandemic, which held off on imposing the strict measures seen in other countries.
But he stepped up the response after scientists warned hundreds of thousands could die in Britain and the United States if there was only a focus on delaying and slowing infections.
A paper, compiled by 30 members of the Imperial College London's Covid-19 response team, concluded suppression was "the preferred policy option", which would require "a combination of social distancing of the entire population, home isolation of cases and household quarantine of their family members".
"This type of intensive intervention package... will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more)," its authors said.
They predicted transmission would "quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed".
The lead author of the study, epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, is advising the British government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which is helping to coordinate its Covid-19 response.
Britain's new measures include household isolation if a family member has Covid-19 symptoms, staying away from pubs, clubs, restaurants and theatres, and a recommendation against mass gatherings, including sporting events.
"This announcement will lead to thousands of businesses closing their doors for good, and hundreds of thousands of job losses," UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls told Reuters.
Mr Johnson's government has promised a £30 billion (S$52 billion) package of support for individuals and businesses affected.
In France, a strict lockdown prohibiting all but essential outings also came into effect yesterday.
Tens of thousands of police officers will patrol streets and issue fines of up to €135 (S$212) for people without a written declaration to justify their reasons for being out.
French President Emmanuel Macron announced the measure on Monday night in an address viewed by a record 35 million people.
The country has reported more than 6,600 infections and 148 deaths from the virus.
Health experts warn that the numbers could soar in the coming days, seriously straining the hospital system.
Mr Macron said that under the new regime, gatherings among friends and family were banned, with only "necessary movements" like medical visits allowed.
Schools have been closed since Monday.
But Health Minister Olivier Veran said yesterday that self-confinement rules could be eased in two weeks if the spread of the virus was sufficiently contained.
"If in two weeks we see that things have calmed down enough and we can lift some of these confinement rules, we'll do it," he said.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS