People watch British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's press conference on new Covid-19 measures, in Hertford, the UK, March 23 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ANDREW COULDRIDGE
People watch British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's press conference on new Covid-19 measures, in Hertford, the UK, March 23 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ANDREW COULDRIDGE

London — Britain on Monday ordered a three-week lockdown to tackle the spread of coronavirus, shutting “non-essential” shops and services, and banning gatherings of more than two people.

“Stay at home,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a televised address to the nation, as he unveiled unprecedented peacetime measures after the country's death toll climbed to 335.

The announcement came after outrage in government that recommendations about reducing social contact to minimise close-contact transmission of the virus were being ignored.

Crowds of people were seen enjoying weekend spring sunshine in parks and countryside across the country, prompting calls for tougher action to be imposed.

“From this evening (Monday) I must give the British people a very simple instruction — you must stay at home,” Johnson said. “Because the critical thing we must do is stop the disease spreading between households.”

Under the new measures, Johnson said going out to shop for basic necessities was still allowed, as was exercise, medical need, and travel to and from work.

But shops selling items such as clothes or electronics, libraries, playgrounds and places of worship would be shut, with a ban also extending to weddings and baptisms but not funerals.

Parks will remain open but Johnson warned: “If you don't follow the rules the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.”

He called the outbreak “the biggest threat this country has faced for decades” and said the already overstretched state-run National Health Service (NHS) would be unable to cope if the pace of transmission continued.

“I urge you at this moment of national emergency to stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives,” he said.

The restrictions, similar to those in place in other countries, would be “under constant review”, he said. “We will look again in three weeks, and relax them if the evidence shows we are able to.”

“But at present there are just no easy options. The way ahead is hard, and it is still true that many lives will sadly be lost.”

In other developments:

• SA went into a  21-day national lockdown starting at midnight on Thursday to combat the spread of Covid-19. The lockdown will continue until April 16 and South Africans will only be allowed to leave their homes under strict conditions.

• Chancellor Angela Merkel tested negative for the coronavirus according to an initial result, allaying concern over Germany’s leadership as Europe confronts the spiralling pandemic. Merkel quarantined herself late on Sunday after learning that she had contact with a doctor who later tested positive for the virus. Via video link, the German leader on Monday chaired an emergency cabinet meeting that signed off on an unprecedented package worth more than €750bn to buoy the economy.

•  Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said a virtual lockdown in France imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus could last several more weeks and that his government was tightening restrictions even further. He said citizens from Tuesday would only be able to exercise alone or with their children once a day, for no more than an hour, and within 1km of their home. Open-air markets should close, he said. Several curfews are already in place, including in Nice on the Mediterranean coast.

 Cyprus on Monday announced a lockdown on the island until April 13 to fight of the spread of coronavirus, saying the movement of people was banned until then unless absolutely necessary. Cyprus has reported 116 cases of coronavirus, including 21 new cases confirmed on Monday. The island had effectively sealed its borders with a widespread ban on civilian air traffic which came into effect on March 21.

• The Dutch government on Monday said it would strengthen an existing ban on public gatherings and extend it until June 1, in what Prime Minister Mark Rutte termed a “targeted lockdown”. Previously, gatherings of more than 100 people had been banned through April, though authorities had urged additional “social distancing” measures. The country's justice minister said police would now be given the power to break up groups of more than three people and fines could range from €400  for individuals to €4,000   for companies.

• Italy on Monday reported a second successive drop in daily deaths and infections from a coronavirus that has nevertheless claimed more than 6,000 lives in a month. The Mediterranean country has now seen its daily fatalities come down from a world record 793 on Saturday to 651 on Sunday and 601 on Monday. The number of new declared infections fell from 6,557 on Saturday to 4,789 on Monday.

• Turkish football icon Fatih Terim,  manager of Istanbul giants Galatasaray, said Monday he had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. “I'm in safe hands at the hospital. Don't worry. Hopefully I'll communicate more as soon as possible,” Terim said. Turkey has officially recorded 1,236 cases of the new coronavirus while 30 people have died, according to the health minister late on Sunday.

• Democrats on Monday again blocked a nearly $2-trillion rescue package for the teetering US economy, highlighting a bitter partisan battle over how to best protect struggling Americans and crippled businesses from the ravages of coronavirus. Entire states including New York and California are already into lockdown.

The Tokyo Olympics are headed towards the first postponement since the modern games began in the 19th century, as Canada and Australia pulled out  and Japan’s leader acknowledged a delay may be unavoidable due to the coronavirus. International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound told  USA Today that the decision to push back the July-August event has already been made.

Reuters, AFP