In the past few minutes, Boris Johnson has announced that the UK is going into lockdown from this evening. In a statement in Downing Street (which you can read in full here), he announced that people will not be allowed to leave their homes unless they are doing so for the following:
- shopping for basic necessities
- one form of exercise a day such as a run, walk or cycle and either alone or with other members of the same household
- medical needs or caring for a vulnerable person
- travelling to or from work but only when absolutely necessary.
The police will be given the power to fine people and disperse gatherings and all non-essential shops and events such as weddings and baptisms will be banned.
Johnson explained that the reason he was announcing this now was that 'though huge numbers are complying' with the government guidance, 'the time has now come for us all to do more'. He once again explained that this was to flatten the curve of infections as much as possible so that the NHS isn't overwhelmed. And he made an emotional appeal (the first from his own lips) to the nation, saying: 'In this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted. Each and every one of us is now obliged to join together to halt the spread of this disease. To protect our NHS and to save many many thousands of lives. And I know that as they have in the past so many times, the people of this country will rise to that challenge and we will come through it stronger than ever. We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together.’
Inevitably there will be critics arguing that the government should have done this sooner. A more sophisticated criticism perhaps is that the government, which has been trying to taper its instructions according to how long it believes people are likely to comply with social distancing rules, hadn't quite understood how many people were going to totally ignore the advice right up until a ban. Or indeed why there was no government information campaign explaining this clearly on the broadcast networks, on posters by the parks where people were having picnics at the weekend, and elsewhere.
But it is too late for those questions now: they will be asked properly in the inevitable inquiry into the outbreak. Now the focus will move to whether the NHS is getting everything it needs, and whether everyone now indoors will get the support they need too: there are many self-employed workers who are in a panic about how they will manage in the coming months. There are many new questions now that the big one about when our freedom will be curtailed has been answered.