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Coronavirus: Calls for clarity over new curbs on life in UK
24 March 2020
- Coronavirus pandemic
Calls are growing for the government to give clarity over its strict new rules to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The measures ban public gatherings of more than two people, and tell Britons to only go to work if “absolutely necessary”.
Downing Street said people could face £30 fines if they break the public gathering limit.
There are also calls to support self-employed workers, with the chancellor saying he was “determined” to help.
A total of 340 people have died from coronavirus virus in the UK.
The latest people to have died include Ruth Burke, 82, in County Antrim. Her family said it was heartbreaking not being able to kiss her goodbye because of how contagious the disease is, adding they did not want her simply to be remembered as a statistic.
In an unprecedented speech to the nation on Monday evening watched by 27 million TV viewers, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK was facing a “moment of national emergency” and he was bringing in new measures for at least three weeks.
He said people should leave home only to exercise once a day, travel to and from work where “absolutely necessary”, shop for essential items and to fulfil any medical or care needs.
He also ordered the immediate closure of shops selling non-essential goods.
- What are the new restrictions?
- Johnson’s coronavirus address in full
But on Tuesday, pictures showed workers in London crowding into Tube carriages – despite warnings that even when out in public, people should keep two metres (6ft) away from others.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for “clear and unambiguous advice around which workers can and can’t go out”.
“This is putting workers at risk and it’s putting the lives of all of us at risk. We need clear enforcement,” he said.
Among those concerned are those in the construction industry, with many workers still commuting to busy building sites.
Unions, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and workers themselves have said their jobs are non-essential and putting people’s health at risk.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove told the BBC building could continue if it can be done safely in the open air, but work carried out at close quarters in someone’s home would not be appropriate.
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Police chiefs said phone lines were inundated with calls after the prime minister’s statement, as people rang to ask what they were still allowed to do.
Police in Scotland will not hesitate to enforce the new measures, the force’s chief constable has said.
And on Tuesday, the PM’s official spokesman said the overwhelming majority of people “can be expected to follow the rules without any need for enforcement action”.
But the punishment in England for not complying would be a fixed penalty notice initially set at £30. “We will keep this under review and can increase it significantly if it is necessary to ensure public compliance,” the spokesman added.
Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said enforcing the new restrictions would be “a real, real challenge”, as there was already “large amounts of sickness” among officers across London.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said in a tweet that the next few weeks would be “testing” for police but she would make sure officers had “the resources they need to keep themselves and the public safe”.
How can the rules be enforced?
These measures represent some of the most far-reaching curbs on personal freedom ever introduced in the UK in peacetime.
But it is unclear how the rules can be made to work.
The first hurdle is to get them on to the statute book; although the prime minister said the restrictions on travel and gatherings would come into effect immediately, police don’t have the powers to enforce them yet, nor have they had official guidance.
The second issue – assuming legal regulations are approved later this week – is the practical difficulty of getting groups to disperse and accurately identifying people who should not be on the streets, without losing public goodwill and sparking disorder.
When efforts to persuade those who do not comply have failed, officers will be able to issue fines, with prosecutions likely to be a last resort.
But at a time when officer numbers are increasingly depleted through illness and self-isolation, forces will be hoping communities do the right thing without the need for intervention.
Meanwhile, opposition parties and unions have called on the government to do more to protect self-employed people, who will not be covered by the government’s promise to pay 80% of salaries of employees unable to work.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced increased benefits for the self-employed, but did not guarantee their wages. Freelance workers – who would face a loss of income if forced to stop working due to sickness or quarantine – have told the BBC they feel they have been forgotten.
- ‘How is £94 a week going to pay anyone’s bills?’
Labour’s Rachel Reeves said there was “a worrying gap” in the government’s strategy when it came to self-employed workers.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Sunak said work is going on in Whitehall to come up with a “deliverable and fair” support package.
“There are genuine practical and principled reasons why it is incredibly complicated to design an analogous scheme to the one that we have for employed workers,” he added.
But he added: “Rest assured that we absolutely understand the situation that many self-employed people face at the moment as a result of what’s happening and are determined to find a way to support them.”
In other key developments:
- The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games – due to begin on 24 July – have been postponed until next year
- For the first time ever, all the UK’s mobile networks sent out a government message on Tuesday morning to every customer with details of the new measures.
- Sports Direct has confirmed it will not open its stores to the public following a U-turn by the sportswear retailer
- Prisoners in England and Wales will be confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and allowed out only to shower and use pay-phones, with all visits cancelled, the BBC understands.
- Most of Ryanair’s flights are expected to be grounded from Tuesday – with no further flights likely in April or May
- Chemicals giant Ineos is to build a hand sanitiser plant near Middlesbrough within 10 days to produce one million bottles a month
- Emergency legislation introducing measures to respond to the virus will go before the House of Lords later after it passed through the Commons on Monday evening
- 514 more people die in Spain, the worst day yet in the country
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