Coronavirus: Europe tightens lockdowns while others ignore social distancing advice

"If people don't exercise responsibly in the parks," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, "we are going to bring forward further measures."

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By Alexander Smith and Luke Denne

LONDON — At the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, European governments are taking increasingly drastic measures to try to reduce spiraling deaths — while others begged disobedient members of the public to follow self-isolation guidelines.

In the United Kingdom, pressure mounted on the government to impose the same strict rules as its European neighbors as it became clear many people were simply ignoring government advice to avoid social contact.

Britain's cases and deaths are spiraling with the same velocity seen two weeks ago in Italy, which remains the worst affected country in the world.

"We need UK LOCKDOWN TODAY. If we do it today we may limit damage to be 'only' as bad as Italy, which is suffering terribly," Tim Colbourn, an associate professor in global health epidemiology at University College London, said in a tweet.

"Every subsequent day of delay means more deaths here than in Italy in two weeks time," he added. "We're tracking Italy deaths from 14 days ago but have less ICU capacity."

A billboard in Naples, Italy, on Sunday highlights the measures taken by the government to fight the coronavirus.Carlo Hermann / AFP - Getty Images

On Sunday, the Italian government banned all internal movement inside the country and shut down nonessential industries. That was after another 651 infected people died in the space of 24 hours, a sharply rising death toll that stands at almost 5,500.

"It is the most difficult crisis in our post-war period," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said in a video posted to Facebook.

The number of daily deaths in Italy was slightly down from Saturday's all-time high of 793, though experts cautioned on drawing too much hope from a slight drop across a single day.

Meanwhile, France and Spain have introduced increasingly severe measures as their cases and deaths continued to rise quickly.

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In France, where 674 have died, six local curfews have been imposed, and Monday marked the start of a state of emergency in which people would face increased fines for venturing outside without good reason.

In Spain, which was already in a state of emergency, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told his country "we are at war" and warned that "the worst is yet to come." That country has seen 2,182 fatalities.

And even in Germany, which has gained attention for its relatively low death rate, the government banned gatherings of more than two people. Meanwhile the country's leader, Angela Merkel, quarantined herself after one of her doctors tested positive.

A temporary hospital has been set up in an exhibition center in Madrid, Spain.Comunidad de Madrid / AFP - Getty Images

Shutting down all but essential services and travel leaves these governments with increasingly few levers to pull when trying to contain the virus.

Some experts point out that these measures could well be working but there may be a lag time for them to have an effect. That's because people who contracted the virus as long as two weeks ago may only be getting seriously ill now.

Nevertheless, a common theme is that without strict government enforcement, people in some countries are continuing to ignore official advice.

Many people in Italy did not take the outbreak seriously in its early stages until it was too late. Now, people in that country are warning the rest of the world not to make the same mistake.

The U.K. has so far resisted imposing the same restrictions as its European neighbors, instead only urging — rather than telling — people to stay at home and avoid contact with others. Only on Friday did it tell all pubs, restaurants and other public spaces to close.

Passengers squeeze on to a busy Central Line underground train at Stratford station in east London on Monday.Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP - Getty Images

On a crisp, sunny weekend across the U.K., many people, particularly in the emerging coronavirus hot spot of London, were clearly not listening.

Pictures of parks, seafronts and other public spaces teeming with visitors went viral on social media, to the outrage of those who have been making sacrifices and staying indoors. There was a similar story Monday morning, with images of packed subway trains sparking horror.

Transport for London, the government body that runs the capital's subway system, has reduced its number of trains to enable "critical workers to make essential journeys." But this appeared to have the adverse effect of making the services that did run overcrowded, as many people decided to continue with their commutes.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been reluctant to curtail people's daily freedoms, in part, according to those who know him, because of his ideological belief in personal liberty and his fears about an overbearing state.

People gather in Greenwich Park in London on Sunday.Simon Dawson / Reuters

But during his briefing Sunday, he said more strict measures would be imposed if people did not follow government advice.

"If people don't exercise responsibly in the parks and green spaces, there is going to be no doubt we are going to bring forward further measures," he said.

Jonson's health secretary Mat Hancock accused people who are ignoring government's advise and are still socializing of "very selfish" behavior Monday.

Others have blamed Johnson's government, saying he has been slow to act while delivering vague or conflicting guidelines about how people should live their lives.

Even The Times, one of Britain's leading newspapers, which endorsed Johnson's Conservatives during last year's nationwide election, said Monday he was "behind the curve" and that he had "squandered" the time he had to prepare.

"The government still cannot say clearly whether the goal is to suppress the virus or whether it is still seeking only to slow its spread," the newspaper said in a column.