Coronavirus: Calls for clarity over new curbs on life in UK

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Construction workers work near the Excel Centre, London in the Docklands as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, London, Britain, March 24, 2020.Image copyright
Reuters

Image caption

Construction workers are among those calling for action to protect them

Calls are growing for the government to give clarity over its strict new rules to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The measures, announced on Monday, tell Britons to only go to work if “absolutely necessary”.

But on Tuesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said those who cannot work from home should go to work “to keep the country running”.

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth called for “clear and unambiguous advice around which workers can and can’t go out”.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was not possible to provide a “bespoke guidance” for each occupation – but she gave clarity with some examples and general principles.

Unlike the UK government, she said building sites should close – unless it involves an essential building such as a hospital.

Meanwhile, people who gather in groups of three or more could face £30 fines, Downing Street said.

It comes as the number of people with coronavirus to have died in the UK reached 422 on Tuesday, a rise of 86 since Monday.

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.

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Media captionBoris Johnson: “You must stay at home”

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.

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.

Among those still commuting are many construction workers going to busy building sites, with the industry raising concerns and saying the work was not essential.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Mr Ashworth said just key workers – those whose jobs are considered essential and included on a government list – should go to work.

“We’re hearing stories of warehouse insisting agency workers turn up, construction sites not putting in place social distancing measures,” he said.

“This is putting workers at risk and it’s putting the lives of all of us at risk. We need clear enforcement,” he said.

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Media captionMatt Hancock: Coronavirus restrictions are “not advice, they are rules” and would be enforced by the police.

On Tuesday, Mr Hancock told the House of Commons “employers should be taking every possible step to make sure that remote working can happen”.

But he added that “where people absolutely cannot work from home they can go still go to work, indeed it’s important that they do to keep the country running”.

Mr Hancock said the government would be publishing guidance later today to explain the steps employers should take to keep employees safe “including making sure there’s a 2m gap between workers where possible”.

Earlier, cabinet minister Michael Gove told the BBC that 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.

Mr Hancock also told MPs the government was “ramping up testing as fast as we can” and it was buying “millions of tests” which it would “make available as quickly as possible”.

He also said the government was working to ensure victims of domestic violence who are forced to stay at home would get support.

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Media captionArmy deliver personal protective equipment to a London hospital.

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.

Labour’s Rachel Reeves said there was “a worrying gap” in the government’s strategy when it came to self-employed workers.

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Media captionAfter Boris Johnson brings in new measures, the BBC explains why staying in is a matter of life and death

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.”

Image copyright
Getty Images

Image caption

The new measures came after a sunny weekend during which crowds were seen in public spaces

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