westminster coronavirus lockdown

The Week in Westminster: The UK goes into coronavirus lockdown

Your need-to-know guide to this week's UK political happenings

Another week, another set of unprecedented circumstances for countries across the globe. As the US officially became the centre of the COVID-19 epidemic, with more cases than either China or Italy, many nations took drastic measures to stop the spread of the disease. This included the UK where a virtually complete lockdown was called on Monday evening and the Prime Minister tested positive for the disease on Friday – here’s everything you need to know from the week in Westminster.

Britain enters lockdown

Following already restrictive measures announced last week, on 23 March Boris Johnson confirmed the UK would be entering a state of almost complete lockdown. In effect for an initial period of three weeks, but likely to be extended should the need arise, the British public were advised they would now live under the following rules:

  • People are not to leave their homes except to shop for essentials (food, medicines etc) when absolutely necessary or to take one form of exercise per day.
  • Only key workers or those who cannot work from home are permitted to leave their houses for work reasons.
  • Public gatherings must be limited to two people (excluding those you live with).
  • People must not visit each other’s homes.
  • You must stay at least two metres away from other people when outside.
  • You must wash your hands immediately upon returning home.

In a move at odds with the usual ‘civilians in uniform’ approach of UK law enforcement, Johnson confirmed that police would be deployed to enforce these new rules, although reasonable efforts to persuade groups to disperse will be taken, with use of force an absolute last resort. Police also been granted power to issue fines to those breaking the rules while the UK’s privacy watchdog has confirmed it will allow data from mobile phones to be used to monitor behaviour. Mirroring the call to many retired nurses and doctors, the Met Police has also asked around 5,000 recently retired police officers to return to work to help cope with the coronavirus outbreak in London.

The public has also been asked to avoid all non-essential travel, especially on public transport, and delay situations such as house moves which may promote the spread of disease.

Business and the economy

Following last week’s wage promise to furloughed workers, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced on Thursday that the same deal would be extended to the UK’s self-employed workforce. Those who qualify will be paid 80% of their average earnings over the last three years, capped at £2,500 per month. This will come as a great relief to Britain’s 5 million self-employed workers, the majority of whom are in professions such as music, film, hairdressing, personal training and events, which have been hit hard by social distancing measures. However, the scheme will not cover the recently self-employed or those who do not have a full year of accounts, who will, instead, have to rely on universal credit to make up for lost wages.

As part of the government’s emergency stay-at-home measures, all non-essential stores, i.e. those not providing food, medicine, toiletries or other basics, as well as gyms, playgrounds and leisure facilities, were ordered to close until further notice. While many workers in these areas will qualify for the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, it is a big blow to the retail industry – especially as many firms, including Next, River Island and Net-A-Porter, have also ceased online trading in order to keep warehouse workers safe.

While the full scale of the economic impact of COVID-19 is yet to become clear, analysts now believe it almost certain that a global recession is on the cards. It is hoped, however, that should the government’s aid measures prove sufficient to prevent as many companies as possible going out of business, the effects on the UK will be sharp but temporary.

The NHS and healthcare

Following last week’s call for retired doctors and nurses to return to work, the government this week announced a new voluntary scheme allowing the public to sign up to assist the NHS with essential unskilled jobs. These included short phone calls with those most susceptible to loneliness, providing shopping and medicine delivery services to the self-isolated and transporting equipment between hospitals. Launched on Tuesday, the scheme received 500,000 sign ups within 24 hours – far exceeding the 250,000 target – with volunteers beginning to receive tasks via a dedicated app within days.

Elsewhere, plans have been announced to turn London’s ExCel exhibition centre into a 4,000 bed field hospital largely staffed by military medical personnel, signalling the government’s expectation of an influx of critical patients over the coming weeks. The army is also being deployed to deliver medical equipment to NHS staff while many GPs have called for advice on who should be wearing protective gear to extend to anyone coming into contact with suspected cases – not just those confirmed to have coronavirus.

In more positive news, Public Health England has confirmed that an at-home antibody test is well underway and could be available to the public in the near future. The test is currently undergoing trials to prove its accuracy – a similar one was withdrawn in Spain for proving unreliable – and will be made available to health workers before being offered to the general public. Should the test prove effective, it will be able to detect whether someone has already had the disease and is therefore thought to be immune – meaning they are no longer at risk of being a carrier and can safely return to a more normal life.

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