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U.K. Changes Direction, Orders Lockdown To Fight Coronavirus

NOEL KING, HOST:

In the U.K., there are strict new measures in place today because of the coronavirus. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is ordering people to stay at home or risk arrest. Now shut down, nonessential stores - places like libraries, playgrounds, churches - basically public places in general.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: No prime minister wants to enact measures like this. I know the damage that this disruption is doing and will do to people's lives, to their businesses and to their jobs. And that's why we've produced a huge and unprecedented program of support both for workers and for business.

KING: Johnson says the government will keep reviewing these restrictions and will lift them as soon as possible. But, he said, they will probably last at least three weeks.

NPR's Frank Langfitt is in London. Hey, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: Why these restrictions now? A lot of time has passed.

LANGFITT: Well, it has. And there's been a lot of criticism of Prime Minister Johnson for not doing this sooner. He urged people to do this and close the pubs and restaurants on Friday. And then over the weekend people were out in the parks, not seeming to pay much attention to him. And then a lot of people would have seen the photos on the Tube - London's Tube on Monday, where people were really packed in. So I think he felt that the only way to get this done was to order people to stay inside.

And I think one thing he's talking about with cops, I think, is giving people's fine (ph). I'm not sure that we're to the arrest point yet, and we're not to the point that we've seen in Rome where you have to necessarily have papers. But apparently, there are police on the trains checking if people are essential or nonessential workers. So it's definitely a very big change from what we've seen even just from last weekend.

KING: Johnson gave this speech last night. So you guys are - you're in daylight at this point.

LANGFITT: Yes.

KING: Can you tell whether people are following the order?

LANGFITT: Well, it's a huge city. It's 9 million plus the greater London area. And I think you're seeing different responses right now. So for instance, on the Tube - people are still posting photos of packed Tubes.

KING: Huh.

LANGFITT: Yeah. And I think what may be going on here is they've been reducing the service to try to not - first of all, they don't have enough people drive the trains, I don't imagine, because people are off work and some people are probably beginning to get sick. But this means more and more people are getting packed in, and there's a lot of anger. There was somebody on Twitter who called it a breeding ground for the virus. And Sadiq Khan, the mayor, said ignoring these rules means more lives lost.

Now, out in the suburbs, it seems a very different story. It's kind of - they're ghost towns. I went to a train station today. The gates were open for the - one of the rush-hour trains, 741, just 10 people were on the platform. I talked to a security guard. His name is Anil Parmar (ph). And he said there were some health care workers and other essential workers getting on, and this is how he described them.

ANIL PARMAR: NHS, office workers, we've had some construction builders as well. I've spoken to an IT guy. He was just grabbing his last few things, and then he'll be working from home this week.

LANGFITT: Are people keeping their social distance?

PARMAR: Definitely, yeah. And it's becoming normal now, whereas at the start, it was quite weird. I felt like you offend someone if you don't keep a distance.

KING: Frank, did you talk to anyone who was actually headed into London?

LANGFITT: I did. I talked to a construction worker who actually had been turned away.

KING: Oh.

LANGFITT: He's working on a big famous project at Battersea Power Station right along the river. And he went in. And he was told, no, no, no, you can't go in; you're a construction worker. And then he checked, and indeed the government had said that construction workers could go in. So he came back with his ID, and he was preparing to board the train. And I said, well, how do you think this is going to work? And he said, I don't know how it's going to work in construction because, you know, if I ask somebody to help me lift something, I can't have them be, you know, six feet away; it's just not going to work. So he was going in, but he was dubious about how well this social distancing was going to work, you know, in a construction site.

KING: He makes an interesting point. Frank, you know, in the U.S., the big concern is about hospitals and how they're going to bear up under all of this. How prepared is the health service there in the U.K.?

LANGFITT: I mean, I think in a word, not well-prepared. It's been underfunded for a decade. There's already a shortage of protective gear. The government says it's trying to send, I guess, 2.5 million more masks to people. But we're already hearing concerns and complaints from doctors and nurses, and we're far away from the peak. So I think there's - people are really, really nervous about that.

KING: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank thanks so much.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.