The United Kingdom’s government stepped up its response to the coronavirus pandemic this week, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that people should stay at home to slow the spread of the virus. Stopping short of using the term “lockdown,” the British prime minister’s actions mirror those of his European counterparts; the likes of Italy, Spain and France are already under lockdown. But as the number of people becoming infected by COVID-19 increases, and hospitals across the UK brace for an even bigger influx of unwell patients, will Johnson’s plea be enough?
His decision was quite a U-turn. Just 24 hours before his address to the nation, Johnson had laughed off the suggestion that the police should be drafted in to enforce tougher restrictions. The following night, he was pleading with citizens to only leave their house for specific reasons, and that public gatherings of more than two people were banned. If people didn’t comply, he warned, the police would be issuing fines and dispersing public gatherings. He didn’t elaborate further, however, as to how this would be logistically possible for the police. France, for instance, requires its citizens to sign a declaration about why they are leaving their homes, with police carrying out stop checks. It felt as though Johnson’s new restrictions seemed a little hollow.
Police forces across the UK have not been spared from the significant budget cuts across the public sector under the Conservative government. Since 2010, police forces have lost 20,000 officers, with Boris Johnson’s promise of increasing the number of officers yet to reach fruition. There is currently a huge strain on the police force, who are having to do more with fewer resources. Johnson’s remarks that the police would be dispersing public gatherings, and fining people who didn’t follow social distancing, completely ignored the fact that the police simply don’t have the resources to impose these new restrictions. In fact, they didn’t always have the necessary resources to investigate crimes that were happening before the coronavirus pandemic.
I think that Johnson is obviously looking to other European countries who have used their police forces to intervene during this pandemic, imposing lockdown rules upon its citizens. But unlike in countries, such as France and Italy, the UK doesn’t have access to an additional nationwide military police force, such as the Gendarmerie or Carabinieri. The police capacity of our European neighbours is greater than in the UK, meaning that they are better equipped to impose lockdown restrictions. Moreover, our already stretched police forces will be put under even more strain once officers fall ill as a result of COVID-19 and are required to self-isolate. It just doesn’t seem feasible that policing alone is the answer to keeping people at home.
Going to work when working from home isn’t possible is one of the reasons people in the UK are being permitted to leave their homes. In London, which has the highest number of cases in the UK, pictures of packed commuter trains and underground stations posted on social media suggest that many Londoners are still going to work. There has also been a reduction to services, meaning that trains are filling up quickly during the morning rush. A lack of checks on who is taking public transport in London is something that I think will need to change. This might involve a greater security presence at stations to control the flow of commuters, or special access cards for “key workers.” Healthcare professionals, carers and emergency service workers taking the Tube are currently being put at risk of acquiring the coronavirus due to overcrowding on certain lines. Given that Transport for London has already said they are unable to increase the frequency of their services due to one third of its staff being off sick, I think there needs to be some form of control on who can use public transport to ensure the safety of London’s most-needed workers.
Healthcare professionals have also spoken out on social media about their struggle to find food on the shelves of their local supermarkets, as panic buying saw thousands flocking to shops and fighting over food and household supplies. Whilst it is encouraging to now see that various supermarket chains have put in place controls over the number of people allowed in their shops at any given time, and limits on the number of items per shopper, it seems like this came too late into the pandemic. Supply chains are still trying to catch up with the initial wave of panic buying, meaning that some shoppers are still going without.
On a positive note, the selfish behaviour being displayed in supermarket aisles might be starting to ebb, as over 500,000 people have signed up to volunteer to deliver food and medication to the most-vulnerable in our society. That being said, I fear that as case numbers increase, societal anxiety and panic will build again. The government will need to look at how it can avoid swarms of people descending upon supermarkets across the country. I would argue that clear and transparent communication from the prime minister might be the first step to regaining the public’s trust in their country’s leadership.
It remains to be seen if Prime Minister Johnson’s appeal to the nation to stay at home will serve its purpose. His suggestion that the police will be able to penalise those who are non-compliant with the rules seems to me as being short-sighted. Police forces are already stretched, so I would argue that they simply do not have the resources to effectively implement these restrictions without additional support. The prime minister will now need to elaborate further on what practical steps his government plans to implement to tackle this pandemic. I fear that his current restrictions are lacking any concrete steps for how he hopes to achieve them. He will need to work at communicating this to the British public if he is to truly save lives.
- Hadley Stewart is a London-based writer, broadcaster and medical journalist.
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