UK public backlash against lack of restrictions

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Boris Johnson, U.K. prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, reacts during a general election campaign visit to the JCB Cab Manufacturing Centre in Uttoxeter, U.K., on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019.

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The U.K. government is facing growing calls from the public and scientific community to take more drastic measures to combat the new coronavirus, as the rest of Europe and the U.S. shuts down much of public life to prevent the virus spreading further.

“#WhereisBoris” has been trending on Twitter this weekend with many members of the British public venting their frustration at Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government’s apparently cautious approach when it comes to containing, and now delaying, the spread of the virus.

As of Sunday, the U.K. has a total of 1,395 positive cases of coronavirus and 35 people have died, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.

On Twitter, a growing number of people are questioning the official numbers, and the government’s strategy to keep schools open as long as possible as well as museums, shops, bars and restaurants. In fact, many members of the British public are now pleading with the government to shut down public life, as other countries from the U.S. to Europe, are doing.

Some members of the public are also advocating a walkout of schools and workplaces with #covid19walkout also trending on Twitter.

On Sunday night, the U.K. government said it would start giving a daily press conference on the outbreak, and how the public can protect itself, and said it would meet with industries and communicate with international leaders to “drive forward efforts to curb the virus.”

On Monday afternoon, Johnson will also chair a meeting of the U.K.’s emergency committee to coordinate the government’s ongoing response to coronavirus. “The meeting is expected to include discussion on current modelling of the outbreak and next steps on plans around shielding elderly and vulnerable people, household isolation and mass gatherings,” Downing Street said in a statement.

Slow to respond?

The U.K. government had initially said it would not be carrying out mass testing on the population and advised the public that the best thing it could do was to wash hands properly, and said anyone with a fever or persistent cough should self-isolate for seven days. 

Having accepted last week that the outbreak moved from the “contain” phase to the “delay” stage, however, the government has not announced any immediate restrictions on public life.

The government noted that “in the coming weeks, we will be introducing further social distancing measures for older and vulnerable people, asking them to self-isolate regardless of symptoms” but said that “if we introduce this next stage too early, the measures will not protect us at the time of greatest risk but could have a huge social impact.”

“We need to time this properly, continue to do the right thing at the right time, so we get the maximum effect for delaying the virus. We will clearly announce when we ask the public to move to this next stage. Our decisions are based on careful modelling. We will only introduce measures that are supported by clinical and scientific evidence,” it said in a statement.

There was consternation, however, at comments made by the U.K. government’s chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance seeming to suggest that part of the government’s strategy was to “broaden the peak” of it to avoid overwhelming demand and pressure on the National Health Service (NHS), and to allow a large part of the population to build up some immunity to the virus, a strategy known as “herd immunity.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits a laboratory at the Public Health England National Infection Service in Colindale on March 1, 2020 in London, England.

WPA Pool

The government backtracked from the comments this weekend after a group of over 200 scientists openly questioned the wisdom of that approach, telling the government in an open letter that they were concerned at plans to delay social-distancing measures. 

“Under unconstrained growth, this outbreak will affect millions of people in the next few weeks. This will most probably put the NHS at serious risk of not being able to cope with the flow of patients needing intensive care … Going for ‘herd immunity’ at this point does not seem a viable option, as this will put NHS at an even stronger level of stress, risking many more lives than necessary.” The scientists said that by putting in place social distancing measures now, “the growth can be slowed down dramatically, and thousands of lives can be spared.”

“We consider the social distancing measures taken as of today as insufficient, and we believe that additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately, as it is already happening in other countries across the world.”

Europe’s shutdown

As the number of confirmed cases and death toll mounts in the region, many European countries have brought in restrictions on the public, closing schools and universities, museums, bars and restaurants and banning mass gatherings and even closing borders. 

In the worst hit countries of Italy and Spain, only grocery stores and pharmacies remain open as the southern European countries tackle their worst public health emergency in recent years. 

While Spain has imposed a 15-day nationwide lockdown, banning its 46 million citizens from all-non essential movement, the euro zone’s largest economies France and Germany have closed large parts of their economies and fortified borders. In the U.S. too, New York City and Los Angeles have shut down bars, restaurants and other public places and Las Vegas has closed its casinos.

Despite (or perhaps due to) the lack of restrictions in the U.K., the public is fearful of an imminent lockdown and shortages, with widespread panic-buying seen at supermarkets with staples like toilet paper, pasta, soap and diapers stripped from the shelves. U.K. supermarkets pleaded with shoppers Sunday not to stockpile goods and to only take what they need.

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