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In this screen grab taken from video, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses the nation from London, March 23, 2020.

PA Video/The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a near total lockdown of the country for at least three weeks as Britain grapples with how to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, which is moving at a rapid pace.

“From this evening, I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home,” Mr. Johnson said in a televised address to the country on Monday evening. “Because the critical thing we must do is stop the disease spreading between households.”

People can go out only to buy food, exercise once a day, visit a doctor or travel to work if their job can’t be done at home. All shops other than grocery stores have also been closed, and gatherings of more than two people banned. “If you don’t follow the rules, the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings,” Mr. Johnson added. The government will review the success of the measures in three weeks “and relax them if the evidence shows we are able to.”

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It’s not clear how the measures will be enforced and details are still being worked out with police.

Mr. Johnson had been reluctant to follow the lead of governments in Italy, Spain, France and Belgium, which imposed similar restrictions, and in some cases went further. He held back for days and only recently ordered schools, pubs, restaurants and theatres closed. To help cushion the blow, the government introduced loans and grants for businesses and workers totalling more than £330-billion, or $550-billion.

Pressure to take a firmer stand increased on the weekend when people headed to parks and seaside resorts in droves despite appeals from the government to stay home. The chief executive of Snowdonia National Park in Wales said the number of visitors during the weekend had been the “highest in living memory,” and television images showed several parks in London packed with people.

Health officials worried that, without tougher measures, Britain was headed for a similar outbreak as in Italy, where the number of cases is close to 64,000. Britain had 6,650 cases as of Monday and 335 people have died. Those figures were up from 5,683 positive tests and 281 deaths on Sunday. London has the highest number of cases in the country, with more than 1,200, and the virus is spreading faster in the capital than anywhere else in Britain.

Mr. Johnson’s actions came after the World Health Organization said the pandemic had been accelerating and the virus has spread to nearly every country.

“It took 67 days from the first reported case to reach the first 100,000 cases, 11 days for the second 100,000 cases and just four days for the third 100,000 cases,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “We’re not helpless bystanders. We can change the trajectory of this pandemic.”

Dr. Tedros called for a co-ordinated global effort and said all countries need to test every suspected case, isolate and treat those who are ill and trace every one of their contacts.

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Europe has shown some signs of hope. The rate of growth in cases has slowed in Italy, a sign the stringent lockdown might be succeeding. Confirmed cases increased to 63,927 on Monday, up 8 per cent from Sunday. That was the lowest rise in percentage terms since the outbreak took hold on Feb. 21. The number of fatalities jumped by 602 to 6,077 on Monday, the smallest daily increase in four days.

Officials in Germany said the number of cases there has also begun to level off at around 30,000. And in Spain, health officials said on Monday that they expected the number of cases to peak this week and start levelling off by the weekend. Spain has slightly more than 33,000 cases so far and the death toll has topped 2,000.

But the strict lockdowns have also caused havoc across the European Union. Goods are supposed to move freely through member states and commercial traffic has been exempt from lockdowns. But long lineups have been reported at several borders. "This weekend we had some crossing points with more than 40 kilometres of queues,” said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. “This is a waiting time of up to 18 hours. This has to stop.” The commission asked member states to designate lanes for commercial traffic, and said all inspections “should not take more than 15 minutes.”

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