British Transport Police have been deployed to stop a mass exodus, as thousands of Londoners headed to train stations to try to escape the city ahead of Christmas and strict pandemic restrictions.
The officers were tasked with ensuring “only those who need to take essential journeys” were allowed on the crowded trains, according to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who warned Londoners to stay away from the stations unless they were “permitted to travel” on Sunday.
Specially appointed ‘Christmas travel tsar’ and Network Rail chair Peter Hendy backed him up. “We will be deploying staff…and extra officers are in place to ensure only essential journeys take place,” he stated, without elaborating on how exactly the essential would be sorted from the non-essential.
Travelers in and out of the locked-down area were threatened with fines if they did not have a “reasonable excuse” for their journey, though National Police Chiefs’ council chair Martin Hewitt stated there was “no intention” to set up roadblocks or checkpoints.
Scottish police similarly vowed to “deter anyone who might be considering breaching travel restrictions” with “highly visible patrols,” though chief constable Iain Livingstone also said they’d stop short of roadblocks and checkpoints.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock was less clear when asked how police planned to enforce the edict, telling the BBC he hoped “polic[ing] the transit system” would be “done by consent.” Police would not be turning drivers away leaving London, he acknowledged.
The Tier 4 lockdown was announced on Saturday, just hours before it was set to take effect at midnight, in response to the reports about a new and more contagious strain of the coronavirus. Most European countries have either temporarily banned travel to and from the UK or are considering imposing restrictions.
However, the announcement had the opposite effect of its ‘stay home’ message ahead of Christmas, spurring unprecedented crowding as people fled London in a last-ditch effort to see their families for the festive period. Train tickets rapidly sold out, and video posted on social media attested to the chaos at major transit hubs even as London Mayor Sadiq Khan attempted to shame his fleeing constituents.
“You may be taking that virus with you from London to your mum, dad, elderly relations,” the mayor warned, blaming the prime minister’s office for triggering panic.
The surprise lockdown represented a reversal from PM Boris Johnson’s earlier admission that it would be “frankly inhumane” to cancel Christmas celebrations, and Metropolitan Police Federation head Ken Marsh suggested it was unenforceable.
“We’re not going to be knocking on people’s doors on Christmas Day,” he said, adding that “we have no power of entry.”
The previous plan had allowed for a five-day period of household mixing for the Christmas holiday.