By Daniel Gaffney
While coronavirus hysteria consumes social media, and supermarkets are relieved of their stock of anti-bacterial hand wash, paracetamol and (for some reason) toilet roll; the response of the British Government has been relatively calm and considered compared to abroad. This begs the question, has the government been slow off the mark in controlling coronavirus, or is the UK leading the way?
After a COBRA meeting yesterday, Boris Johnson announced that the United Kingdom was moving from the ‘containment’ to the ‘delay’ phase. The measures aimed at protecting the vulnerable and the elderly, included:
- Anyone with a “new, continuous” cough or high temperature is advised to self-isolate for seven days
- Testing will only focus on identifying people with the virus in hospital
- Schools being advised to cancel trips abroad
- People over 70 and those with pre-existing health conditions being told not to go on cruises
However, the government has faced growing criticism, because the British response does not match foreign responses, where more stringent measures have been taken.
At the time of writing, the Republic of Ireland and France have closed all schools and colleges, while the US has band all incoming flights from Europe (apart from flights from the United Kingdom). The Italian government has imposed a blanket closure of all schools, colleges, theatres and non-essential stores across the country; leaving food retailers and pharmacies open as the death toll in Italy surpasses 1000.
In the UK, there have been 596 confirmed cases so far, but health officials believe that the actual figure falls between 5000 and 10000. The UK government is yet to close schools and prevent large gatherings of people by cancelling sports events and concerts.
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been critical of the government’s response, describing the decision to hold off preventing large gatherings of people as “surprising and concerning” when we have “four weeks to reach the stage that Italy is at”.
“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,” added Mr Hunt, who was health secretary for six years and quit as foreign secretary in July.
Defending the tactics, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the government said that the government’s first set of measures was actually “rather large”.
“The most likely place you are going to get an infection from is a family member or friend in a small space, not in a big space,” he said.
“We have just asked a lot of people to isolate, stay at home, if they have got symptoms of mild upper respiratory tract infection, cough or fever. That is a big change,” he added.
“We have also talked about the possibility of whole households staying at home if one person has got [coronavirus] – that may come in later.
“And importantly we are also talking about that during the peak when people are most likely to get infected, the elderly and vulnerable are properly protected. This is not a short-term thing, it is going to go on for weeks.”
He said that closing schools was a “very effective way of dealing with pandemic flu” but that with this coronavirus, “the role of children is less clear in terms of spreading the disease”.
The PM has said suspending major public events such as sporting fixtures was still under consideration, but it would be a measure primarily to protect public services, rather than delay the spread.
He also said there was no need to close schools at the moment, saying “the scientific advice is that this could do more harm than good at this time”.
The UK government’s health advisers are working on the assumption that Britain will not see infection rates peak for up to three months.
Ministers said it was important to get the timing right for stricter measures because people would tire of them after a few weeks.
As the epidemic reaches its peak, it is likely elderly people and those with health conditions will be told to cut social contact and stay at home.
As the number of confirmed cases increases in the UK, you are left to wonder if the government’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ strategy is the sensible way forward, or should the government have moved to the ‘delay’ phase earlier?