The UK government has been criticised for not going far enough in its response to the Coronavirus. An open letter, signed by over 200 scientists at the end of last week, urged the government to take stronger measures to combat the spread of the contagion. UK health authorities announced on Sunday that the death toll to the virus now stood at 35, with over 40,000 people tested, of whom 1372 were infectious. The weekend saw the most significant rise in the number of deaths to date – 14 in the space of a day.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a press conference last week when he pronounced the Covid-19 pandemic to be the most serious public health crisis to hit the country ‘in a generation’. He unveiled fresh advice to people: anyone experiencing the symptoms of Coronavirus – a new, continuous cough, and/or a temperature – to self-isolate for a period of 7 days. He did not, however, at the time announce measures to restrict large social gatherings, or to shut schools and nurseries. This generated surprise and concern from scientists and the public alike. Some organisations even decided on their own to cancel scheduled events, deeming it necessary under the circumstances. This led to a government U-turn on Friday as it was declared that mass gatherings would be outlawed from Monday onwards.
Indeed, for the 229 scientists who signed an open letter to Boris Johnson last week, such measures curtailing social interaction could not come soon enough. They state that they are ‘deeply preoccupied’ with the timeline of Johnson’s Coronavirus action plan and that under ‘unconstrained growth’ the outbreak would go on to affect millions of people in the next few weeks. They say that working towards achieving ‘herd immunity’ at this early stage would cripple the NHS as there simply aren’t enough intensive care beds available. This makes sense when one considers that Germany, which currently has many more intensive care beds than the UK, has ordered a further 10,000 to deal with the crisis.
The scientists argue that a lack of social distancing measures now ‘risks lives’.They point to other countries in Europe who are now taking more drastic steps to stem the spread of the virus. Last week the World Health Organisation declared Europe to be the most centralised area of the pandemic outside China. Italy has been particularly badly affected, with over 21,000 cases and over 1400 deaths, with much of the north of the country on lockdown for six days now and people ordered to remain indoors unless it is absolutely necessary. All non-essential businesses are closed. Spain, the second worst-hit country in Europe after Italy, with 191 deaths and over 6000 cases, is also poised to proclaim a national lockdown starting from tomorrow. France announced its lockdown on Saturday which will close all but essential shops, restaurants and bars. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, tobacconists and petrol stations will remain open.
To date it has been thought that the worst symptoms were experienced by the elderly and infirm, with UK Health Minister Matt Hancock stating on Sunday that those 70 years and over would soon be asked to self-isolate for a period of four months to protect them from the virus. But in France, statistics have painted a slightly different picture, with Jerome Salomon, the head of the French public health authority stating that half of their 300 intensive care patients are in fact under the age of 60. He also said that it was time for French citizens to appreciate the serious nature of the pandemic: “To date, there has not been enough awareness by French women and men of the importance of their role in the face of the virus. It is urgent. Now is the time to change our behaviour”.
Not for decades have Europe’s nations been on such a war-footing. One commentator said he was reminded of Britain’s position in 1916 during the First World War, when it faced not having enough munitions and was forced to ask other manufacturers to switch to making weapons. In a similar way, Matt Hancock said on Sunday that there was a dire shortage of ventilators in Britain and that the government would purchase them from any firm which made them. He said that he urged manufacturers to change some of their production lines to make ventilators, acknowledging that it was in fact a policy usually reserved for war-time. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would hold talks with engineering firms on Monday.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a fast-moving situation. Every day there are more cases and more deaths, and it is extraordinary how quickly this has gone from being a distant news story to something which will affect all of us. Most of us will never have experienced such a far-reaching pandemic before. The decisions made by our elected governments will have a vital impact on how this disease progresses, and on our lives in the next few months.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.