LONDON – British authorities on Monday dramatically ramped up measures to combat the new coronavirus, urging all U.K. residents to avoid unnecessary contact with others and telling people in the most vulnerable groups to stay at home for three months.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “now is the time for everyone to stop nonessential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel.”
“You should avoid pubs, clubs, theaters and other such social venues,” he said at a news conference alongside his chief medical and scientific advisers.
Johnson said people with “the most serious health conditions” should be “shielded” from social contacts for 12 weeks, starting this weekend. He mentioned people over 70, those with chronic illnesses and pregnant women as particularly at risk, though it was unclear whether everyone in those groups was being told to stay home for 12 weeks.
The U.K. had previously resisted taking some of the tough measures seen in other European countries, which have banned large events, shut schools and closed their borders to slow the spread of the COVID-19 illness.
But Johnson said Monday the number of U.K. cases was starting to rise rapidly and “without drastic action” they could double every five or six days. As of Monday, Britain had 1,543 confirmed cases and 53 virus-related deaths.
British authorities now say if anyone in a household has a fever or persistent cough, everyone there should stay at home for 14 days.
Johnson also said the government would no longer give emergency-services support to large gatherings, though he did not ban them outright. And unlike schools in most other European countries, those in Britain remain open.
“We think that, on balance, best to keep schools open but appreciate that this is something we need to keep under review,” Johnson said.
Britain lags behind countries such as Italy, Germany and France in the number of infections, and the government’s scientific advisers have said that implementing draconian measures too early will make them harder to sustain as the outbreak peaks in two or three months.
Until Monday, Britons had been told merely to wash their hands frequently and to stay at home for a week if they have a fever or continuous cough.
All of London’s West End theaters said they would close in the wake of the government announcement. The Society of London Theatre, which represents scores of venues, said it was “not a decision that is taken lightly” and that going dark would affect 290,000 workers.
UKHospitality, which represents pubs, coffee shops, nightclubs and other leisure venues, said the government’s announcement would be “catastrophic for businesses and jobs.”
“The government has effectively shut the hospitality industry without any support, and this announcement will lead to thousands of businesses closing their doors for good, and hundreds of thousands of job losses,” chief executive Kate Nicholls said.
The U.K. strategy has been based on the presumption that most people will eventually get the virus. Britain’s goal is to slow the spread of the infection so the country’s overstretched National Health Service is not overwhelmed, while protecting those most at risk of serious illness — the elderly and people with serious health problems.
Britain’s approach had come under increasing pressure as neighboring countries went into lockdowns and closed their borders in response to the new virus. Some scientists urged more severe restrictions to enforce “social distancing” and slow the spread of the virus.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and most recover. The worldwide outbreak has sickened over 179,000 people and left more than 7,000 dead. Over 78,000 people have recovered, most of them in China.
The outbreak has already had a huge effect on everyday life in Britain. Ridership on trains and the London Underground is down by a fifth as some businesses ask staff to work from home, and universities are moving classes online.
Supermarkets have been stripped of staples including toilet paper, pasta and rice as shoppers ignore government appeals not to hoard supplies.
Johnson said the measures announced Monday were unprecedented in peacetime.
“And we have to accept that it is a very considerable psychological, behavioral change that we’re asking you, we’re asking the public, the nation to do,” he said. “But I have absolutely no doubt that we can do it, that we can do it together.”