U.K. clamps down to fight COVID-19, but confusion still reigns

Confusion rippled through Britain on Tuesday, a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a three-week halt to all non-essential activity to fight the spread of the new coronavirus. 

Crowded trains and active construction sites seen on Tuesday despite U.K.'s restrictive new mobility rules

A family in Liverpool listens as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a televised address to the nation on Monday. Despite the three-week lockdown Johnson has imposed, people seemed confused over who should still go to work. (Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)

Confusion rippled through Britain on Tuesday, a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a three-week halt to all non-essential activity to fight the spread of the new coronavirus. 

Streets were empty but some subways were full. Hairdressers were closed but construction sites were open. Divorced parents wondered whether their children could continue to see them both.

The government has ordered most stores to close, banned gatherings of more than two people who don't live together, and told everyone apart from essential workers to leave home only to buy food and medicines or to exercise.

"You must stay at home," Johnson said in a sombre address to the nation on Monday evening.

But even as the U.K. recorded its biggest single-day increase in COVID-19 deaths, photos Tuesday showed crowded trains on some London subway lines, amid confusion about who was still allowed to go to work.

Britain had 8,077 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 422 deaths on Tuesday — 87 more deaths than a day earlier.

Julia Harris, a London nurse, said her morning train to work was full. 

"I worry for my health more on my commute than actually being in the hospital," she said.

Sporting goods chain Sports Direct said its shops would remain open, arguing that selling exercise equipment was an essential service. It reversed course after an outcry from the public and officials.

Many building sites remained open, with construction workers among those crowding onto early-morning subways.

Electrician Dan Dobson said construction workers felt "angry and unprotected," but felt they had to keep working.

"None of them want to go to work, everyone is worried about taking it home to their families," he said. "But they still have bills to pay, they still have rent to pay, they still have to buy food." 

A construction worker rests on a break in Leeds, northern England, on Tuesday. Many construction sites across the country remained active, despite the three-week lockdown. (Lindsey Parnaby/AFP/Getty Images)

Authorities sent mixed messages. British Treasury chief Rishi Sunak defended keeping construction sites open, insisting it could be done safely. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, however, said construction sites should close unless the building work was "essential." 

Some closed voluntarily. Construction was halted on London's huge Crossrail train project, and home builder Taylor Wimpey stopped work on all its sites.

On Twitter, London Mayor Sadiq Khan implored employers: "Please support your staff to work from home unless it's absolutely necessary. Ignoring these rules means more lives lost."

Many families were also confused by the new rules.

After Johnson said people should not mingle outside of their household units, separated parents asked whether their children could still travel between their homes. Cabinet minister Michael Gove initially said children should not move between households, before clarifying that it was permitted.

Strict rules imposed across Europe

The restrictions are the most draconian ever imposed by a British government in peacetime. But they don't go as far as lockdowns in Italy and France, where people need a document authorizing their movements.

The government said police would have powers to break up illegal gatherings and fine people who flout the rules. But some expressed doubts about whether the lockdown could be enforced. 

Britain has lost thousands of police officers during a decade of public spending cuts by Conservative-led governments. Johnson has promised to recruit 20,000 more police officers, but those efforts are still in the early stages. Unlike some other European countries, Britons do not carry ID cards, another factor complicating enforcement efforts.

"There is no way really that the police can enforce this using powers. It has got to be because the public hugely support it," Peter Fahy, a former chief constable of the Greater Manchester Police, told the BBC.

For most people, the novel coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever or coughing. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Hospitals in Italy and Spain have been overwhelmed by the critically ill.

Intensive care departments in London, the hardest-hit British city, are being inundated with COVID-19 patients. Johnson warned that the National Health Service could be overwhelmed within weeks unless people took the lockdown seriously.

A sign points the way to a National Health Service 111 Coronavirus Pod at the Royal London Hospital on Monday. Many intensive care units in the British capital have been flooded with COVID-19 patients. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Critics say British authorities have acted too slowly to avert an Italy-scale crisis. Schools were closed less than a week ago, and pubs and restaurants were only shuttered on Friday.

Andrea Collins, a senior clinical lecturer in respiratory medicine at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said the new restrictions were welcome but didn't go far enough.

"I think we need permits across controlled areas to go to a workplace," she said. "Home-working is hard for many but it is possible — we just need to adapt to a new way of being."