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UK’s Boris Johnson orders shops closed, no gatherings over virus

Two tourists take their photo next to a traditional red telephone box in Westminster, London, on Monday, March 23, 2020.

MATT DUNHAM/AP

By DANICA KIRKA AND PAN PYLAS | Associated Press | Published: March 23, 2020

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LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the public Monday night to “stay at home” for all but a few exceptions and ordered shops that don’t sell essential goods to shut down as he ramped up restrictions imposed by the U.K. government in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

In an address to the nation from 10 Downing Street, Johnson said it was critical to prevent the virus from spreading between households and that police would be authorized to break up gatherings of more than two people in public during what he termed a “national emergency.”

“I must give the British people a very simple instruction,” the prime minister said. “You must stay at home.”

Under the measures, the most draconian restrictions the British state ever has imposed in peacetime, people will only be allowed to leave home for a few “very limited purposes” to relieve the pressure on the National Health Service, Johnson said.

These include shopping for basic necessities “as infrequently as possible,” one form of exercise per day done alone or with household members, medical reasons or traveling to work that cannot be done from home or that is “absolutely necessary.”

“That’s all — these are the only reasons you should leave your home,” he said. “To ensure compliance with the government’s instruction to stay at home, we will immediately close all shops selling nonessential goods, including clothing and electronic stores and other premises, including libraries, playgrounds and outdoor gyms, and places of worship.”

Johnson said the police will have the power to enforce the new requirements, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.

Social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, also will be stopped. Funerals are exempt. Parks also will remain open for exercise, but any gatherings will be broken up.

Johnson has come under mounting pressure to introduce tougher measures in response to the virus pandemic after many people were seen out in public during the weekend not properly observing the government’s social distancing recommendations.

Officials at Snowdonia National Park in Wales, for example, introduced its own restrictions and urged the government to be more explicit with its social-distancing advice after its “busiest visitor weekend in living memory.” And responding to the visibly high use of parks and the London Underground during the outbreak, London Mayor Sadiq Khan implored people to stay at home unless they “absolutely need to” move about the city.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier had expressed frustration at the failure of many to abide by the government’s restrictions, describing those who gathered in groups up and down the land 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. More than 100,000 people have recovered, mostly in China.

While Britain last week ordered bars and restaurants to close, the government’s repeated urging for people to go out only for essential reasons such as food shopping or to exercise seemingly had offered wiggle room to a public unaccustomed to confinement.

“The way ahead is hard, and it is still true that many lives will, sadly, be lost,” Johnson said. “And yet it is also true that there is a clear way through … And therefore, I urge you at this moment of national emergency to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives.”

The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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