"We live in a land of liberty," said Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. "It's one of the great features of our lives that we don't tend to impose those sorts of restrictions on people in this country, but I have to tell you we will rule nothing out."
He definitely didn't rule anything out.
The country has now instituted one of the most rigorous lockdowns in the world. Under Johnson's guidance, those in England are forbidden from leaving their homes unless they have a "reasonable excuse," which includes shopping for food, going to a medical appointment, attending religious services, and exercising no more than once a day.
That may not sound like a far cry from some of the stay-at-home orders in the United States, namely the one California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently lifted. But Johnson's government ups the ante beyond even Newsom's, in that the former is not afraid to take harsh punitive measures against those who step out of line. West Yorkshire Police recently issued £10,000 fines—the equivalent of about 13,700 U.S. dollars—to two men, aged 20 and 23, in Leeds, England.
Their crime: organizing a snowball fight.
"It was a very welcome relief…a welcome laugh that people needed," said one of the men, who, along with his friend, used social media to advertise the gathering. "I know many students who are extremely depressed, and stressed with online exams and have had little support. Mental health is equally as important as physical health…so many young people and students really have nothing to keep them going at this point."
Household mingling is strictly prohibited in England—indoors or outdoors. Single adults who live alone and single parents with children under 18, however, may form "support bubbles," which must only consist of one other household. Fines of £800 apply for anyone who attends a gathering of more than 15 people, and organizers face that ruinous £10,000 fee.
That draconian approach is not the exception, but the rule. Earlier this month, two women in Derbyshire were "surrounded" by police after they drove five miles to go on a remote walk together. The catch: They were each carrying hot drinks, so the cops classified it as a picnic and increased the punishment. Driving for exercise is "not in the spirit" of the current era, said the police.
The women each faced £200 fines, which were later dropped after a backlash. Whether or not the two men in Leeds will be so lucky remains to be seen.