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UK's ‘insufficient’ coronavirus response is ‘risking lives’

A couple wearing protective face masks carry their shopping in central London, Britain, March 15, 2020.
A couple wearing protective face masks carry their shopping in central London, Britain, March 15, 2020. © Toby Melville, Reuters

While many European countries have taken drastic steps to stem the spread of coronavirus, the UK has not yet introduced “social distancing” measures like the bans on large public gatherings despite its death toll nearly doubling on Saturday – leading experts to express criticism and concern.

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The UK’s coronavirus death toll almost doubled on Saturday – from 11 to 21 – while the number of confirmed cases climbed to 1,140. Shortly before these figures were published, France and Spain announced they would go into lockdown.

The French government closed all “non-essential” businesses including cafés, restaurants, cinemas and most shops. Spain banned everyone from leaving their homes except to buy essential supplies or go to work. Denmark and Poland are closing their borders, while Europe’s worst-affected country, Italy, has been on lockdown since February 10. 

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By contrast, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has not imposed any measures restricting daily life in the UK – instead merely urging British subjects to wash their hands regularly and to self-quarantine for a week if they have a persistent cough or fever.

Although some of the biggest sporting events – including English Premier League football matches – have been cancelled, there are no official restrictions preventing large public gatherings. For example, the Bath half-marathon will still take place on Sunday, despite an outcry from the local MP and thousands of social media users.

‘National emergency’

On Friday, more than 60,000 people attended the Cheltenham Festival, the world famous horse-racing tournament – five days after France banned public gatherings of more than 1,000 people.

The same day, the British government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance detailed a strategy based on the assumption that most people will get the coronavirus: “Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely. Also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it.”

Herd immunity is a form of protection from disease that occurs when a high proportion of a population contracts and thereby gains immunity from an illness, thereby slowing its spread.

Vallance’s statement came a day after Johnson described the coronavirus pandemic as “the worst public health crisis for a generation” and warned that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time”.

The government’s approach prompted stinging criticism from at least one senior Conservative MP. “I think we are in a national emergency,” said Jeremy Hunt, chairman of the House of Commons’ Health Select Committee (which scrutinises government policy) and a well-regarded former health secretary.

“It is surprising and concerning that we’re not doing any [social distancing] at all when we have just four weeks before we get to the stage that Italy is at,” Hunt told BBC Newsnight. “You would have thought that every single thing we do in that four weeks would be designed to slow the spread of people catching the virus.”

Hunt wasn’t the only one of Johnson’s rivals in the 2019 Tory leadership election who urged the government to change course. Former diplomat and cabinet minister Rory Stewart, who left the Conservative Party in the autumn over Johnson’s Brexit policy, told Sky News on Friday that the UK should adopt the kind of “tough and extreme” measures implemented in China and South Korea. Coronavirus infection rates have fallen in both countries after strict lockdowns and travel bans were imposed.

“The government questions whether the British public is up for the kind of measures which have been taken in other countries,” Stewart said. “I disagree: I think the British public will do what publics in other countries have done and can do.”

‘Risking many more lives than necessary’

Many medical experts seem to agree. A group of 229 scientists at British universities published an open letter on Saturday decrying the lack of social distancing measures taken so far as an “insufficient” response and arguing that “additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately”.

“The current data about the number of infections in the UK is in line with the growth curves already observed in other countries, including Italy, Spain, France, and Germany,” the scientists noted. “The same data suggests that the number of infected will be in the order of dozens of thousands within a few days.”

In light of this trajectory, they took aim at Vallance’s reliance on herd immunity: “Going for ‘herd immunity’ at this point does not seem a viable option, as this will put NHS (the National Health Service) at an even stronger level of stress, risking many more lives than necessary.”

Indeed, Britain’s cherished public healthcare service was already under strain before the coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December: In the autumn, Johnson was prompted to take emergency action to prevent a “winter crisis” from engulfing the NHS.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News on Sunday that soon all Brits over 70 – and others with some underlying health conditions – will be asked to stay at home for a “very long time”. But unlike in France, where visits to retirement homes have been suspended, Britons without any symptoms will still be allowed to visit older relatives if they stay 6 feet (2 metres) away.

These precautions will not come into effect immediately and Hancock did not give a specific timeframe for their implementation, saying that they will be in place “within the coming weeks” and that, “we’ll be setting it out with more detail when it is the right time to do so”.

He added that the NHS does not have enough ventilator machines to care for the number of people likely to become severely ill with the coronavirus and implored manufacturers to produce more of them. 

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