UK's Johnson urges 'spirit of togetherness' to combat virus

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People eat and drink outside in Soho, in London, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020. Britain's Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has announced that pubs and restaurants closing at 10pm, due to the spike of cases of coronavirus across the United Kingdom. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appealed Tuesday for resolve and a “spirit of togetherness” through the winter as he unveiled new restrictions on everyday life to suppress a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases.

Warning that the measures could last for six months, Johnson voiced hope that “things will be far better by the spring” when a vaccine and mass testing could be in place.

The most high-profile change centered on pubs, restaurants and other entertainment venues in England, which from Thursday must close at 10 p.m. In a change of emphasis, Johnson urged people to work from home where possible. He said stiff fines will be imposed on anyone breaking quarantine rules or gathering in groups of more than six, while the use of face masks will be expanded to include passengers in taxis and staff at bars and shops.

He said further restrictions might have to be introduced if people fail to abide by the rules.

“If we follow these simple rules together, we will get through this winter together,” Johnson said in a prime-time televised address. “But now is the time for us all to summon the discipline, and the resolve, and the spirit of togetherness that will carry us through.”

In a speech with deliberate echoes of World War II communal spirit, Johnson said that “never in our history has our collective destiny and our collective health depended so completely on our individual behavior.”

The other nations of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — also tightened restrictions, going further in some cases.

The new curbs came as the U.K. recorded 4,926 new confirmed coronavirus cases, the highest daily total since early May and four times the figure of a month ago.

Many scientists see echoes of the path of the outbreak earlier in the year when the virus spread swiftly through the country and led to Europe's deadliest outbreak. The U.K. has seen 41,825 people die within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19.

Johnson had told lawmakers in the House of Commons on Tuesday that barring a vaccine or new forms of mass testing, “we should assume that the restrictions I have announced will remain in place for perhaps six months.”

He said that if the new curbs did not slow the outbreak, “we reserve the right to deploy greater firepower, with significantly greater restrictions.”

Johnson's government has faced a barrage of criticism over its handling of the pandemic, notably over big problems in the testing regime.

It has also been criticized over its perceived mixed messaging and sudden lurches in policy.

Just last month it was encouraging people back to pubs and restaurants with a discount scheme. Only weeks ago, Johnson was encouraging workers to go back into offices to keep city centers from becoming ghost towns, and had even expressed hope that society could return to normal by Christmas.

Some lawmakers from Johnson’s governing Conservative Party remain uneasy about tightening restrictions on business and daily life, citing civil liberties and the impact on Britain’s already-reeling economy.

Johnson, who was hospitalized in intensive care with the coronavirus in April, said he was “deeply, spiritually reluctant to make any of these impositions, or infringe anyone’s freedom.”

But he said “the tragic reality of having COVID is that your mild cough can be someone else’s death knell.”

Some scientists think it's inevitable that further restrictions will have be imposed.

Dr. David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter, said most transmission is happening socially and the government should have done more to limit social gatherings. At present, six people from six different households can meet in England.

“Closing down restaurants and pubs earlier will do little to stave the spread for as long as multiple different households can interchangeably meet up,” he said.

Governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland both went further than Johnson in limiting social interaction.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has often struck a more cautious note than Johnson during the pandemic, said that with a few exceptions people will be barred from visiting others' homes.

“We know what we need to do to protect ourselves and others and all of us have a part to play.,” she said in a televised address straight after Johnson spoke.

Businesses, especially in the hospitality, sports and arts sectors, said they urgently needed financial support to weather the new restrictions. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, said before the announcement that the restrictions would be “another crushing blow” for many businesses.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said telling people to work from home was necessary but “comes at a serious price.” She urged the government to introduce new financial support for businesses in hard-hit city centers and for furloughed workers.

Amid concerns that some people who test positive for the virus are still going to work because they can't afford to stay home, the government announced it would pay low-income workers 500 pounds ($639) if they are told to self-isolate for 14 days.

Jennifer Cole, a biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway University, said people’s behavior is “the biggest influence” on the spread of the virus.

“In essence, the government is saying, ‘Stay sober, stay sensible and the venues can stay open.’ It’s a carrot to encourage responsible behavior,” she said.


Danica Kirka in London contributed to this story.


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