LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged the British people on Wednesday to obey rules imposed to tackle a rapidly accelerating second wave of the coronavirus outbreak, cautioning that otherwise a tougher lockdown could follow.
New cases of COVID-19 are rising by more than 7,000 per day in the United Kingdom though Johnson is facing growing opposition to lockdown measures which have wrought some of the worst economic damage in at least a century.
After a reprimand from the speaker of the House of Commons, Johnson defused a rebellion in parliament over the way such onerous rules were imposed by promising angry lawmakers more say over any new national measures.
But at a briefing in Downing Street flanked by his chief medical and scientific advisers, Johnson acknowledged the opposition to his curbs on freedom but said the British people should follow lockdown rules.
“I know that some people will think we should give up and let the virus take its course despite the huge loss of life that would potentially entail,” Johnson said.
“I have to say I profoundly disagree and I don’t think it’s what the British people want. I don’t think they want to throw in the sponge, they want to fight and defeat the virus,” he said.
Britain, which has the worst official COVID-19 death toll in Europe, is facing a rapid acceleration of outbreaks across the country, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said.
Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said the outbreak was not yet under control.
Swathes of the United Kingdom and millions of citizens are subject to local restrictions brought in to try to slow the second wave of COVID-19 infections. Britain has reported more than 42,143 deaths from the virus – the world’s fifth highest total.
“If the evidence requires it, we will not hesitate to take further measures that would, I’m afraid, be more costly than the ones we put into effect now,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who has had to apologise after getting muddled over local lockdown rules on Tuesday, is facing growing anger within his own Conservative Party over the most severe restrictions in peacetime history that are destroying swathes of the economy.
In a rare intervention by the chief officer of the House of Commons, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle scolded Johnson for making rules in a “totally unsatisfactory” way.
“The way in which the government has exercised its powers to make secondary legislation during this crisis has been totally unsatisfactory,” Hoyle told parliament.
After Johnson’s government offered concessions, lawmakers passed the extension of the Coronavirus Act, which hands the government emergency powers to introduce restrictions, voting 330 to 24 in favour.
As Johnson grapples with both COVID-19 and dissent in party ranks, the economic damage was laid bare. The United Kingdom’s economy shrank by a record 19.8% in the second quarter of 2020 – meaning it contracted more than any other Group of Seven economy in the first half of 2020.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Kate Holton, Costas Pitas and Paul Sandle)