Coronavirus: PM Johnson closes UK schools and threatens to lock down London

Johnson addresses a news conference at No. 10 Downing Street in London. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - UK schools will close from Friday (March 20) after Prime Minister Boris Johnson tightened restrictions on the population in the battle against coronavirus.

As the disease spreads, Mr Johnson warned he could impose strict controls on people in London and elsewhere if it's necessary to counter the disease, which has taken 104 lives in the UK so far.

The decision to shut schools and the threat of a lock-down in the capital city came with Britain now in the grip of the pandemic that has spread rapidly around the world.

The Premier has been under fire for not moving more quickly to close schools, while other countries have stepped in sooner with tougher action to halt the spread of the virus.

As he announced that schools will shut until further notice, the Premier insisted he was acting at the right time, on the advice of the government's top scientists.

And amid concerns that Londoners may be ignoring his calls to stay away from pubs and work at home, he bluntly told the public: "Everyone must follow the advice."

Failure to slow the contagion - especially in areas like London where it has taken hold fastest - may require tighter controls on the movement of people, he said.

"We live in a land of liberty as you know, and it's one of the great features of our lives that we don't tend to impose those sorts of restrictions on people," Mr Johnson told reporters in London.

"But I have to tell you, we will rule nothing out."

The UK is escalating its response as the virus takes hold.

Mr Johnson this week described his administration as a "war-time government" and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced 350 billion pounds (S$584.27 billion) worth of state-backed loans, grants and tax cuts to help keep businesses afloat during the crisis.

On Wednesday, Mr Sunak said the government would go further, with officials "looking at every conceivable tool" at their disposal.

"We stand ready to do what it takes," he told a panel of lawmakers when asked about the possibility of the government bailing out struggling firms by buying them or stakes in them.

With the pound plunging to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985, further measures intended to stop the virus spreading quickly across the country could include restricting the movement of people in London, though such steps are not likely before Friday at the earliest, one official said.

Mr Johnson's spokesman, Mr James Slack, earlier told reporters the government already has power that "allows for individuals to be kept in isolation for their own safety".

The latest announcement covers English schools, which have a total of 8.7 million students. Administrators in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales announced similar closures on Wednesday.

Exams in high schools scheduled for May and June have been called off. Exam boards may need to decide how to award grades to students who do not take formal written tests.

School sites will be kept open for the children of "key workers," including medical staff, emergency services workers and delivery drivers, throughout the normal Easter holiday period.

The government aims to publish the full list of key workers later this week.

The number of coronavirus cases in Britain rose to 2,626 on Wednesday from 1,950 a day earlier, with the Press Association putting the national death toll at 104.

The government plans to introduce a law to protect private renters from eviction if the crisis means they can't keep up payments.

In another development, the government said it would ramp up testing for coronavirus to 25,000 a day in coming weeks, from 5,000 a day last week.

Mr Johnson also suggested he won't allow the coronavirus to derail his plans to take the UK out of the post-Brexit transition period at the end of the year, saying the deadline is fixed in law.

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