Britain’s newly imposed lockdown has gotten off to a confusing start with growing uncertainty over who should go to work and how the measures will be enforced.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the lockdown Monday evening in an effort to slow the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. As of Tuesday, the country had more than 8,000 infections, up from 6,650 a day earlier. The number of deaths increased by 87 to 422, the largest one-day increase since the outbreak began.
The new requirements included ordering people to work from home if possible, closing all non-essential stores and banning gatherings of more than two people. But on Tuesday, millions of people headed to work and much of the London Underground appeared packed as usual during rush hour.
Many of the commuters were construction workers who weren’t clear about their status. Health Minister Matt Hancock said all construction projects should continue as long as builders kept at least two metres away from each other. But London Mayor Sadiq Khan argued that was impractical and he has been pushing to close building sites.
There were also reports that some call centres had opened along with a few government offices. One retailer, Sports Direct, vowed to open its stores Tuesday morning only to have a government minister order them shut.
Police forces across the country also grappled with how to enforce the new rules. Policing in Britain is largely based on persuasion and the vast majority of officers don’t carry weapons.
“Certainly the police will get involved with more than two people gathering in the same place but as far as policing the bread aisles in the supermarkets, or checking how many times people are going to the shops, that’s simply impractical,” said John Apter, chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales. “We police by consent and I don’t want that to change during this crisis.”
Several police forces also reported being inundated with phone calls from people inquiring about what they could and couldn’t do.
The government is counting on people complying with the measures and so far Mr. Johnson has ruled out using the military, setting up road blocks or requiring people to carry permission slips. Fines for breaching the lockdown have also been set at £30, or $51, which is far lower than penalties in France where the minimum fine is €135, or $210, and rises to €1,500 ($2,550) for a repeat offence. However, Mr. Johnson has said that tighter restriction could be imposed when the lockdown is reviewed in three weeks.
Health officials have become increasingly worried that Britain is only weeks behind Italy in terms of the spread of the virus. Italy has nearly 70,000 confirmed cases but infections in Britain have been rising at a faster rate in recent days, especially in London.
The government has tried to increase testing frequency and, on Tuesday, Mr. Hancock announced that a temporary hospital will be built inside the sprawling ExCeL convention centre in London. The facility will be able to treat up to 4,000 patients. He also said that nearly 12,000 retired doctors, nurses and health-care workers had answered the government’s call to come out of retirement and help with the crisis.
There were signs on Tuesday of the damage the outbreak has already done to the economy. Figures released by economists at IHS Markit showed that output in the manufacturing and services sector had dropped by the largest amount in 20 years in March. The data were compiled before the lockdown, signalling an even worse month ahead.
“A recession of a scale we have not seen in modern history is looking increasingly likely,” said Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit. “Any growth was confined to small pockets of the economy such as food manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and health care. Demand elsewhere has collapsed, both for goods and services, as increasing numbers of households and businesses at home and abroad close their doors."