London faces lockdown as troops mobilised to halt virus spread

A masked couple visit Buckingham Palace in London. (AP pic)

LONDON: Boris Johnson’s government is mobilising military personnel and preparing to put London in lockdown as it battles to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The prime minister threatened to tighten restrictions on movement in the capital, which is at the centre of the outbreak, at a press conference on Wednesday. An official said the move is not likely before Friday at the earliest.

“We’re obviously looking at the medical and scientific advice,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told Sky News on Thursday, a day after he announced the closing of schools across the country. “No decision has been made” on locking down London, he said.

Johnson, who has faced criticism for moving too slowly against the disease, is now racing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has already killed 104 people in Britain. The virus is spreading fastest in the capital, according to the government.

As many as 10,000 extra military personnel are on standby to be deployed to support civil authorities as part of a new “Covid Support Force.” They will include people trained to drive oxygen tankers to hospitals, as well as scientists working on combating the deadly disease.

The measures are part of contingency plans to respond to requests from governments departments or civil authorities. The announcement doubles the number of troops available to help tackle the virus.

Tube stations shut

Transport for London announced the closing of 40 underground stations as it encouraged people only to make essential journeys and to leave the network of subways, buses and trains free for the use of workers vital to the effort against the pandemic.

“People should not be travelling by any means unless they really, really have to,” Mayor Sadiq Khan said in a statement. “London will get through these extraordinarily challenging times, and ensuring the capital’s critical workers can move around the city will be crucial.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government is working with airlines and airports to develop a package to help them weather the impact of the virus.

“Coronavirus is having a crippling impact on the aviation industry and we cannot allow it to force world-leading, well-run, profitable firms out of business,” he said.

Johnson’s government is also expected to publish emergency legislation on Thursday that will give it the powers to close meeting places, ban gatherings and detain people who are a danger to public health as it seeks to halt the spread of the virus.

Failure to slow the contagion may require tighter controls on the movement of people, Johnson said on Wednesday. The government says it already has the power to keep individuals in isolation for their own safety.

“We live in a land of liberty as you know, and it’s one of the great features of our lives that we don’t tend to impose those sorts of restrictions on people,” Johnson told reporters in London. “But I have to tell you, we will rule nothing out.”

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