UK departs from world in virus response, draws criticism

Strategy based on presumption that most people will eventually get virus, and that severe measures unlikely to work; former health secretary concerned by lack of social distancing

People wear face masks as they sit on the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in Piccadilly Circus, in London, March 13, 2020 (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
People wear face masks as they sit on the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain in Piccadilly Circus, in London, March 13, 2020 (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON — The United Kingdom stands increasingly apart as countries around the world shut schools and universities, scrapped sports tournaments and shuttered bars and restaurants in response to the new coronavirus.

The British government has not restricted the everyday activities of UK residents by banning large public gatherings or suspending transit networks. More than 60,000 horse-racing fans packed a course in England on Friday for the final day of the Cheltenham Festival, one of the few sporting events in Europe still taking place.

Pupils in Northern Ireland attended classes as usual at St. Columban’s primary school in the village of Belcoo. Yet a little more than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away, across the border in the Irish Republic, the local St. Patrick’s school was closed. So was every other school and all the colleges, daycare centers and cultural institutions in Ireland.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described the worldwide pandemic as “the worst public health crisis for a generation.” He warned Thursday that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

A couple wear face masks as they visit Buckingham Palace in London, March 14, 2020 (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

Yet UK authorities have not introduced the strict “social distancing” measures adopted by neighboring nations. Britons are being urged to wash hands frequently and asked to stay home for a week if they have a persistent cough or a fever.

The British health minister said Sunday that people over the age of 70 will be asked to self-isolate, potentially for months, “in the coming weeks.”

British lawmaker Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, leaves 10 Downing Street following a cabinet meeting ahead of the budget announcement in London, March 11, 2020 (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

When asked by Sky News if they could be asked to go into isolation for up to four months, Matt Hancock said: “That is in the action plan, yes.

“And we will be setting it out in more detail when that’s the right time to do so, because we appreciate it is a very big ask of the elderly and vulnerable, and it’s for their own self-protection.”

Hancock said the government’s bill laying out its emergency action plan would be unveiled on Tuesday and published on Thursday.

As of Sunday, the UK had 1,140 confirmed cases of the new virus, an increase of more than 200 from a day earlier. Twenty-one people have died.

Britain’s strategy is based on the presumption that most people in the country will eventually get the virus, and severe measures to contain it are unlikely to work.

Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said the UK was “about four weeks or so behind Italy,” where more than 15,000 infections and more than 1,000 deaths were recorded in only three weeks.

As more people become infected in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, growing criticism of the government’s approach is coming from Johnson’s political opponents, from some scientists, and from an increasingly worried population.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt takes part in a Conservative Party leadership hustings event in Birmingham, central England on June 22, 2019 (Oli SCARFF / AFP)

“I think we are in a national emergency,” said former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who like Johnson is a Conservative politician.

“I think 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 the BBC. “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.”

British officials insist they are trying to slow the spread of COVID-19 disease, thus lessening chances the health system will be overwhelmed by a sudden spike.

But in contrast to many other countries, Britain has calculated that enforcing social distancing too soon would be counterproductive because people will tire of the restrictions and start to lapse just when the measures are needed most.

In most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms such as a fever or cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

If most people become infected and then recover, it builds up “herd immunity” in the population, lessening the impact of future outbreaks.

Worldwide, 135,000 people have been infected and nearly 5,000 have died, but half of those who had the virus have already recovered.

“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely,” Vallance said Friday. “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.”

Shelves are empty in the fruit and vegetable section of an Asda store in London on March 14, 2020. (Yui Mok/PA via AP)

To some anxious Britons that sounds callous, as if the government intends to let some individuals get sick and die in order to strengthen society. The front pages of most British newspapers carried stark summaries Friday of Johnson’s warning the day before: “Many loved ones will die,” was the Daily Mail’s headline.

Scientists say a pandemic like the current one brings with it difficult choices and tough judgment calls.

Thomas House, a reader in mathematical statistics at the University of Manchester, said that “whether we aim for it or not, herd immunity will happen at some point in the future” once the new virus has run its course.

“The aim of policy should be for this to happen with the minimum human cost possible,” he said.

Whatever the government advises, the virus has already had a major impact in Britain. Soccer’s Premier League canceled matches until April 3. Some universities are moving classes online. Commuters can get rush-hour seats on the London Underground as more people work from home. Hotels, shops and restaurants report business dropping off as tourists cancel their trips.

Some critics say the government’s approach relies too much on the untested theories of behavioral scientists, and argue that containment measures can still be effective.

Rory Stewart, a former Conservative government minister, urged Britain to adopt “tough and extreme measures” such as lockdowns and travel bans that have worked in China and South Korea to bring down the number of new infections.

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

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