Boris Johnson has given his most explicit warning yet that the UK might face an Italian-style lockdown to curb coronavirus amid mounting criticism of a mixed message from No 10.
After a weekend of alarm at widely shared pictures of people congregating in parks and at markets, which appeared to suggest some are ignoring official advice on social distancing, the prime minister said more draconian steps could be needed, adding: “If people can’t make use of parks and playgrounds responsibly, in a way that observes the 2 metre rule, then of course we’e going to have to look at further measures.
“We will think about this very actively in the next 24 hours,” Johnson said at his Downing Street press conference.
“We need to think about the kinds of measures that we’ve seen elsewhere, other countries that have been forced to bring in restrictions on people’s movements altogether.”
But after Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, warned that too many Britons were “either confused by the government’s social distancing measures or choose to ignore them”, critics said the PM’s message on social distancing was still too ambiguous.
Pressed on the issue during a daily briefing at which he announced no new measures, Johnson stressed that parks and other green spaces were vital for people’s mental and physical wellbeing, but also said the public should stay indoors wherever possible.
And while some councils have announced the closure of playgrounds and even parks, Johnson said they should remain open for now, based on scientific advice: “What they’ve always said so far is that the health benefits for the whole of society of keeping the parks and the playgrounds open if we possibly can outweigh the epidemiological value of closing them.”
He said the situation would be “under constant, constant review”, but when asked whether police could be part of any response, he replied “police?” in apparent surprise.
In a series of tweets, Ashworth said the messaging on social distancing was confusing, saying: “This cannot continue in a public health emergency.”
He added: “We have called for and welcomed measures including banning mass gatherings and pub closures. But if social distancing measures are not working the government must take stronger action.”
In the interim, devolved governments and councils have taken their own actions, in part to halt the flow of people to open spaces, but also to try to prevent urban dwellers from fleeing to more remote areas, potentially overwhelming local health services.
Nicola Sturgeon announced that ferry companies to Scottish islands have been instructed not to carry tourists and other non-essential travellers.
Visit Cornwall asked holidaymakers online to “please stay away” to help reduce the speed the virus was spreading and avoid “needless lives being lost”, while authorities in Wales made a similar plea.
Some national parks and gardens closed as good weather and Mother’s Day drew crowds. In London, Hammersmith and Fulham council said it was closing all its parks as they had been “full of people this weekend with a significant proportion ignoring government guidelines on social distancing”.