The Guardian view on lockdown for Britain: true leadership is required | Editorial

However well-intentioned, a laissez-faire strategy for fighting coronavirus has not worked. Now is the right time for the government to give the public clarity and firm parameters

After the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act was introduced in 1939, imposing a series of stringent and intrusive restrictions on individual freedoms, the wartime government anxiously kept a close eye on compliance. How would people respond? The answer, a Ministry of Information report concluded in 1942, was that: “People are willing to bear any sacrifice if a 100% effort can be reached and the burden fairly shared by all.”

During the critical days to come, in the very different Britain of 2020, the present government must trust in exactly the same kind of popular resilience. The public desperately needs clear, bold leadership, as the trajectory of the coronavirus epidemic in this country continues to track that of stricken Italy. On Saturday 793 people there died from the disease in one day – a global record. This is the right time for Boris Johnson to abandon the register of exhortation and rely on clear instructions that are understood to carry legal force, instituting a lockdown. A laissez-faire approach to fighting a pandemic has not worked.

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