UK begins tougher virus action after dire science warning

London (AFP) –


Britain on Tuesday ramped up its response to the escalating coronavirus outbreak after the government imposed unprecedented peacetime measures prompted by scientific advice that infections and deaths would spiral without drastic action.

More firms sent staff to work from home and public transport emptied after the government called for an end to "non-essential" social contact and unnecessary travel as confirmed cases climbed to more than 1,500 and deaths rose to 55.

Britons were only to travel abroad if absolutely necessary for the next 30 days, to avoid the risk of being stranded by border closures, airline cancellations and stringent curfews.

"The speed and range of those measures across other countries is unprecedented," Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told parliament.

Tougher restrictions are expected soon, including forcing people with serious health conditions to stay at home for three months to ease pressure on the already overburdened health service.

The government was due to set out details of emergency laws in parliament, where members of the public have now been banned from attending debates, meeting lawmakers or visiting.

Police are expected to get powers to detain people to stop them from spreading the virus and hospitals allowed to send patients home to free bed space.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced criticism for his approach to the pandemic, which had involved holding off on imposing the strict measures seen in other countries.

But he stepped up the response after scientists warned hundreds of thousands could die in Britain if there was only a focus on delaying and slowing infections.

- 'Intensive intervention' -

Thirty members of Imperial College London's COVID-19 response team concluded in a paper that suppression was "the preferred policy option" to curb the spread of the virus.

It would require "a combination of social distancing of the entire population, home isolation of cases and household quarantine of their family members".

"This type of intensive intervention package... will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more)," the report stated.

They predicted transmission would "quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed", it added.

The study's lead author, epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, is advising the British government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which is helping coordinate its COVID-19 response.

He said he had also shared the projections with US President Donald Trump's administration last week and sent it an early copy of the report over the weekend.

The sobering assessment saw London and Washington both announce stringent new social distancing measures on Monday.

In Britain, that includes seven-day household isolation if a family member has COVID-19 symptoms, staying away from pubs, clubs, restaurants and theatres and a recommendation against mass gatherings, including sporting events.

- 'Crippling blow' -

Johnson's announcement sparked concern about the impact on business, especially in the hospitality industry, amid fears of an extensive economic fall-out from the outbreak.

Fashion chain Laura Ashley filed for administration, putting up to 2,700 jobs at risk, while the British Beer and Pub Association warned thousands of jobs would be lost if pubs went to the wall without government intervention.

Arts groups said they faced a "crippling blow" if audiences stayed away.

The Tate museums and galleries announced their closure until May 1.

All events in London's Trafalgar Square, including upcoming celebrations for St George's Day, Vaisakhi and Eid, were cancelled until further notice, Mayor Sadiq Khan said.

Controversially, schools remain open.

But the government, which has promised a £30-billion ($36 billion) package of support for affected individuals and businesses, maintains it is guided by the latest science.

- No choice -

Imperial's report drew on new data from Italy to model how the virus would have an impact in Britain and the United States in an uncontrolled social environment.

It predicted 81 percent of Britons and Americans would become infected, with 510,000 deaths in the UK and 2.2 million in the US, peaking after three months.

If the two countries continued the kind of mitigation policies recently introduced, deaths would only be halved and healthcare systems still heavily overburdened, the report said.

"It's not possible to do anything other than adopt the strategy announced yesterday," Ferguson told the BBC on Tuesday.

He said their mortality rate modelling had "been increasingly clear it's not the reasonable worst-case but the most likely scenario".