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Coronavirus: England city centres deserted as new lockdown begins

AFP/London, United Kingdom
Filed on November 5, 2020
A hand wash station, with advice on keeping socially distanced and other information to prevent the spread of covid-19 is seen in central Manchester, north-west England on November 5, 2020.

(LINDSEY PARNABY)

Second lockdown comes after dire warnings that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases.

City centres reverted to ghost towns as England's 56 million people entered a second coronavirus lockdown on Thursday, amid scepticism that the stringent curbs will work to arrest the worst death toll in Europe.

World-famous tourist destinations such as London's Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square were deserted, and normally bustling cities including Manchester and Liverpool likewise fell quiet.

In the hours before the lockdown took effect at midnight, some revellers clashed with police outside packed pubs, including in parts of London and the northern city of Leeds.

Miles-long traffic jams also developed as motorists sought to escape the British capital.

"You can't imagine from yesterday to today how different it is. It's completely dead now," Maria Belkihel, 42, told AFP in London's best-known shopping spot, Oxford Street.

"Christmas is coming and people want to do their Christmas shopping," the Londoner said.

Last weekend, Prime Minister Boris Johnson abandoned a recently introduced system of regional curbs and announced an England-wide shutdown, after dire warnings that hospitals could soon be overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases.

The Bank of England on Thursday unveiled an extra £150 billion (Dh721 billion) in economic support, on top of new Treasury measures to subsidise the wages of furloughed workers until March 2021.

The package gives "absolute certainty that we'll do whatever it takes" to support jobs, Johnson's spokesman told reporters, ahead of the latest televised address by the prime minister later Thursday.

- Concerns about economy mount -

But while opinion polls suggest overall public backing for the revived stay-at-home policy, concerns are mounting about the impact on the economy and  mental health.

A sizeable minority of 34 MPs from Johnson's ruling Conservative party rebelled against the new measures on Wednesday during a vote in parliament.

Another 18 abstained, including his predecessor Theresa May.

"We have been making progress," the prime minister's spokesman insisted.

"The measures we have in place have helped to keep the R (transmission rate) down, but we do believe that we need to introduce these new, tougher national measures to go further and protect the NHS (National Health Service)," he said.

Johnson, adamant the lockdown will end on December 2, is pinning his hopes on an ambitious new programme of Covid testing to detect and isolate infected people, starting with a city-wide trial launching in Liverpool on Friday.

But so far, despite government spending of £12 billion (Dh58 billion) on testing programmes, researchers say that most members of the public are failing to isolate or report their contacts fully.

Around 2,000 military personnel are being mobilised to help in the Liverpool pilot.

- '100 per cent culpable' -

The new restrictions bring England into line with other parts of the UK, which have their own devolved governments, and with nations in Europe including France.

They include a return to working from home where possible and the closure of all non-essential shops and services. Schools will remain open. Exemptions include outdoor exercise and visits to the doctor or pharmacy.

Michael Eppy, a public relations expert on his way to a medical appointment, remarked on how quiet it was around King's Cross station, one of London's major rail gateways and adjacent to the Eurostar terminal for high-speed services to Europe.

"I don't think anyone is particularly happy about the lockdown," he said.

Doubting Johnson's assurances of a four-week limit, Eppy, 35, said: "However long this lockdown lasts, it is this government that is 100 percent culpable."

As in March, the prime minister stands accused by some of ignoring warnings by government scientists to lock down earlier.

Britain has recorded nearly 48,000 deaths linked to the coronavirus, from just over one million positive cases.





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