Police could enforce social distancing rules, says London mayor

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The police could use emergency powers to enforce rules on social distancing and reduce the further spread of coronavirus, the London mayor has said, amid concerns about mixed messages from central government on the issue.

Following scenes of packed beaches and parks over the weekend, and worries that people fleeing cities for more remote parts of the UK could overwhelm less well-resourced local health services, Sadiq Khan urged people to stay at home if at all possible.

“My message to all your viewers is simple: life has changed, we’ve got to do things differently for a while now,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show. “Social interaction leads to the disease spreading, leads to people dying. Don’t leave your home unless you really, really have to.”

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London is considered to be several weeks ahead of the rest of the UK in the spread of coronavirus, and while public transport use has fallen sharply and pubs, clubs, restaurants and other venues were closed on Friday, this weekend people in the capital have flocked to parks, markets and other destinations.

Asked whether such scenes could require police to enforce social distancing and lock down the city, as has taken place in Italy, Khan said an emergency coronavirus bill due to be considered by MPs on Monday would include such powers.

“Because we face a public health emergency, because we face a social emergency, because we face an economic emergency, these measures are in that bill,” he said.

“It’s really important that the police are focused on the priorities that they’ve got, dealing with violent crime and other issues, but clearly, if it is the case that people continue to act in a way that’s leading to this disease spreading, then those sorts of things will have to be considered.”

Earlier the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, said new restrictions could not be ruled out.

Asked on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday show about the prospects of an Italian-style lockdown in the UK, he said: “We don’t want to go down that route. We want to live in a free society where we can continue to go about our activities, whilst following the medical advice. But this isn’t a game. This is very serious, and people need to follow that advice.”

There has been criticism of the message emerging from No 10, with Boris Johnson using one press conference to urge people not to see relatives on Mother’s Day but saying he might try to see his own mother.

In a subsequent message released for Mother’s Day, the PM urged people to stay away, while the government announced plans to ask 1.5 million people in England most at risk from the virus due to health conditions to self-isolate for 12 weeks, with plans for food and medicines to be delivered to them.

While not criticising the central government communications, Khan said he was keen to make sure there was “no confusion or mixed messages”, saying people should stay at home unless it was essential not to.

Khan said he had lobbied the government to avoid any confusion on this. “This isn’t advice, as far as I’m concerned. These are instructions and these are rules we should obey to stop people dying.”

He added: “I’m not somebody who says these things lightly, but I’m quite clear: unless people stay at home, unless people stop using public transport unless it’s essential, unless people stop interacting with each other, more people will die. These are extraordinary times.”

There are also concerns about the virus being spread by people fleeing from London and other cities to the coast or other destinations.

On Sunday the leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price, wrote to the Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, demanding that people be prevented from travelling to second homes or tourist accommodation such as caravan parks, lest they overwhelm local health services.

Asked about whether Londoners should be barred from travel elsewhere, Khan did not say so but urged people to think of the human cost of the virus spreading. “The numbers we’re talking about, the 233 people who have died, they’re not just numbers, they’re people who have died, these are families who are grieving. That number is going to go higher, and quickly, unless we follow the advice.”

Speaking on the Ridge show, the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who now chairs the Commons health committee, said slowing the spread of the virus was vital to avoid the NHS being overwhelmed, as has happened with the Italian health system.

“I think it is a pretty well-prepared system,” he said. “But the truth is, Italy is a well-funded health system, it’s a well-respected healthcare system, and we’ve seen the impact there a pandemic can have. No healthcare system can really sustain the kind of pressure that we’re seeing when this virus gets out of control.”