LONDON - Warning of “difficult months to come”, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed fresh restrictions on the movement of people and economic activities in the country, in a bid to bring under control a new wave of coronavirus infections.
Confronted with statistics indicating that climbing infection figures are now beginning to translate into an ominous rise in the number of deaths from the pandemic, Mr Johnson used a rare speech to the nation on Tuesday (Sept 22) night to reverse his government’s previous policy of encouraging the people of Britain to go back to their workplaces, and is now advising them instead to resume their work from home.
But this move, as well as a raft of other restrictive measures which come into effect from Thursday and will last for six months, stop short of the total national lockdown which the British government imposed in March, when coronavirus infections first reached a peak.
For Mr Johnson is still keen to avoid inflicting further pain on the British economy. His objective is to save lives, as well as people’s livelihood, a balancing act which his critics warn may well end up by missing both objectives.
Britain is facing a trend encountered in most European countries: a steep rise in infections, largely driven by younger people who see the virus as no threat to them, and therefore ignore basic hygiene or social distancing measures.
New coronavirus infections in the UK are growing at about the same pace as they were at the beginning of April, and now run at over 4,000 detected new cases each day.
For the moment, the number of registered daily deaths is still within the lower teens. But, as Mr Johnson told his people, “if you let the virus rip through the rest of the population it would inevitably find its way through to the elderly as well, and in much greater numbers”.
“The tragic reality of having Covid is that your mild cough can be someone else’s death knell”, added Mr Johnson, who himself was in a grave condition in April because of a virus infection.
The measures to be applied from Thursday entail, apart from advice to office employees to work from home, an extension in the mandatory use of face masks, a cap of a maximum of 15 people allowed to attend wedding ceremonies and other events, as well as instructions to all pubs, bars and restaurants to close by 10pm.
The move to curtail restaurant and bar hours, as well as the introduction of a requirement on the hospitality sector that customers can only be served while seated at tables, are intended to prevent the crowding of standing and usually drunk people which generally takes place late in the evening at various drinking and eating outlets, which act as a dangerous source of infection.
The British government is also tightening penalties for those flouting its restrictions. Fines for breaches of the health regulations can now run up to £10,000 (S$17,400) for companies, and the British army has been ordered to stand by to perform regular policing duties across the country, should the attention of the police be diverted to enforcing anti-pandemic measures.
Officials in London have let it be known that the usual leniency which applied until now to punishing individual breaches of health controls will no longer apply.
And Mr Johnson also hinted at the possibility of enforcing a complete national lockdown in the next few weeks, should this become necessary, a plan which British ministers refer to – copying terms first used in Singapore – as a potential “circuit breaker”.
Mr Johnson enjoys cross-party support in parliament for his measures, as well as broad support from the autonomous governments in Scotland and Wales, which have great latitude over their own health policies.
But the prime minister is facing criticism from the opposition Labour Party for the government’s failure to introduce a functioning tracing mechanism, and for his officials’ botched attempts to expand mass testing, both of which are far behind that offered in other European countries.
Much will depend on developments over the next few weeks. “We will spare no effort in developing vaccines, treatments and new forms of mass-testing, but unless we palpably make progress, we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months”, Mr Johnson told the British public.
And at least for the moment, voters appear to be giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Opinion polls indicate that around 70 per cent of the public support the new measures, with 45 per cent thinking they do not go far enough and just 13 per cent saying they are too strict.