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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives his daily COVID-19 press briefing at Downing Street on March 22, 2020 in London, England. The British government is now racing against the clock as it tries to ease the spread of the illness.Ian Vogler/Getty Images

People across Britain tried to celebrate Mothers’ Day on Sunday by staying away from their mothers, as the country braced for what could be a critical week in the effort to slow down the spread of the new coronavirus.

Mothering Sunday is the fourth Sunday of Lent in the Christian calendar, and in Britain it is typically celebrated with special church services and family gatherings. But with infections soaring across the country, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged families not to get together this year.

“I am afraid that this Mothering Sunday the single best present that we can give – we who owe our mothers so much – is to spare them the risk of catching a very dangerous disease. The sad news is that means staying away,” Mr. Johnson said in a message to the country. “Send her your love by phone or Skype.”

As of Sunday evening, Britain had more than 5,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, up from about 5,000 on Saturday. It also had 281 deaths, an increase of 47. The numbers have been rising sharply in recent days and there’s growing concern that Britain could soon be in the same situation as Italy, where more than 5,500 people had died and hospitals in the hard-hit region of Lombardy, especially, have become overwhelmed.

Italy had about 60,000 cases as of Sunday and residents are under a near total lockdown. Spain has also seen a rapid escalation, with more than 1,700 deaths, prompting the government to announce on Sunday that the country’s lockdown would be extended an additional two weeks to April 11.

“The [British] numbers are very stark, and they are accelerating,” Mr. Johnson said. “We are only a matter of weeks – two or three – behind Italy. The Italians have a superb health-care system. And yet their doctors and nurses have been completely overwhelmed by the demand.”

The British government is now racing against the clock as it tries to ease the spread of the illness. All schools, pubs, restaurants and theatres have been ordered closed, and train services will be reduced dramatically on Monday.

In London, some city parks have been shut, along with 40 underground stations. “I’m quite clear that unless people stay at home, unless people stop using public transport, unless it’s essential, unless people stop interacting with each other, more people will die,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said Sunday.

Health officials are also planning to send letters this week to 1.5 million people who might be vulnerable to the coronavirus to urge them to stay at home. Those affected include people with respiratory conditions and anyone undergoing cancer treatment. The government said it was working on plans to deliver groceries and medicine to those affected.

Compliance with government advice has not been universal, and there have been complaints that some people have treated the partial shutdown as a holiday. Several parks in London remained crowded over the weekend and thousands of people packed into conservation areas and seaside resort towns, prompting an angry backlash from local officials.

“Time for everyone to be socially responsible or be made to be,” Marc Jones, the police and crime commissioner for the town of Skegness in the eastern England district of Lincolnshire, said on Twitter. “These caravan sites and arcades must be closed and quickly. Lincolnshire’s health and [emergency] services cannot and should not be facing hundreds of thousands of visitors on top of residents to support.”

Holiday homes in the Scottish Highlands, Wales and rural England have also been snapped up as people flee London and other big cities. On Sunday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tried to curb the influx by ordering ferries to ban all non-essential travel and to only serve people who live in local communities. She also told hotels to stop accepting guests.

Duncan Baker, a member of Parliament for North Norfolk in England, also told outsiders to stay away from the area. In an open letter, he said visitors would only put more pressure on local food services and already limited health-care facilities.

“Above all, visitors from densely populated areas such as London may very well bring the virus to an area which so far is experiencing a lower number of cases,” he added.

Mr. Johnson said on Sunday that the government was considering taking strong action, including a possible lockdown. “But I don’t want to do that yet," he added.

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