UK Johnson CoronavirusLondon—Through happy times or troubled times, for Brits, the pub is always there. So it was a shock to many when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered all of them closed – along with cafes, restaurants and bars – indefinitely.

"We're taking away the ancient, inalienable right of the free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub," he said. 

It was for many, a wake-up call to scale of the Covid-19 pandemic and what's facing the country.

"When I was still in London, people were still using public transport and the pub opposite my flat was always really busy every night," said Josh Woodward, a 24-year-old research assistant in London. "I don't think people grasped the seriousness of it all."
In a rare show of political unity, politicians from rival parties echoed the prime minister's appeals for people to stay home.
"This is the biggest health, social and economic emergency we have faced since the Second World War," said Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.
Overall, the public is supportive of Johnson's handling of the crisis. About 53 percent of Brits had "a lot" or a "fair amount" of confidence Johnson's handling of Covid-19, according to YouGov's March 20 poll.
At the same time, the poll showed that the public supports even more draconian measures than Johnson has so far introduced. For example, 64 percent said they support London being placed under a lockdown.
Some believe the prime minister has been lax and that he should have moved more decisively earlier.
"It feels like the government's response has been quite reactionary even though it seems obvious to the rest of us that these things have to happen to stop the spread of the virus," said Mr. Woodward. "The government was too trusting that the public would listen and obey without the ban being enforced."
Earlier last week, Mr. Johnson stopped short of enforcing closures and instead merely asked Brits not to go to pubs and restaurants to help halt the contagion. Still, for most Brits, it was business as usual. There were no border closures, empty streets or shut stores and restaurants as in most of the rest of the continent.
Even so, the day after Mr. Johnson's request, the number of newly confirmed cases jumped by 66 percent, according to the government agency, Public Health England.
There are more than 5,000 confirmed cases and almost 300 deaths of the virus in the United Kingdom as of Monday, according to Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking infections worldwide. Officials say the true total is likely to be significantly higher amid fears that the country is not far behind neighbors like France where the number of infected have been doubling every week.
Over the weekend, the French press reported that the only reason the British began to lock down the country is because French President Emmanuel Macron forced Mr. Johnson's hand: Macron threatened to ban Brits from coming to France.
An unnamed source in the presidential palace was quoted in the French newspaper Libération as saying, "We had to clearly threaten him so that he would finally move."
After Johnson's announcement, many Londoners with places outside of the capital began to flee –including the 93-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, who is self-isolating with her husband Prince Philip in Windsor Castle outside of the city.
"Evacuated, escaped. Call it what you like," said Mr. Woodward who moved back to his parents' house in the rural town of Yarm in north Yorkshire.
Meanwhile, those left in the British capital were waiting in long lines outside supermarkets before they even opened. Shelves were stripped of essentials such as bread and toilet paper, while government officials pleaded with consumers to refrain from hoarding. Some national supermarkets have responded by reserving time slots in the day specifically for the elderly and health workers to shop.
The government has also said the armed forces could be called in to ensure vulnerable Brits get the supplies they need to weather the pandemic.
Meanwhile, finance minister, Rishi Sunak, jumped to declare a raft of economic measures aimed at bolstering businesses as they brace for the financial impact of the pandemic.
"You will not face this alone," said Mr. Sunak, as he promised the government will pay for up to 80 percent of staff wages.
Even so, large numbers of self-employed people continue to wonder how they'll pay their bills during the crisis.
"I'm feeling really worried about my job because I have three children at home and I won't have the government's help and I'm the only person who works in my house," said Miriam De Oliveira, a 40-year-old self-employed cleaner from London. Large numbers of her clients have asked her to stay away for the foreseeable future and she expects to work just five hours in the coming week, down from her usual 80. "I think the government could help a little more," she added.
On Sunday as the U.K. celebrated its Mother's Day, Mr. Johnson implored Brits not to visit their mothers.
"The best thing is to ring her, video call her, Skype her, but to avoid any unnecessary physical contact or proximity," he said. "If your mother is elderly or vulnerable then I'm afraid all the statistics show she is much more likely to die."

Photo: March 6, 2020 - Thurleigh, United Kingdom - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) meeting scientists at the Mologic Lab. Researchers are developing eveloping a home testing device for coronavirus.
Credit: Courtesy of United Kingdom's Prime Minister's Office official Twitter account (03/06/20)

Story/ photo published date: 03/23/20

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.