LONDON – Faced with the spread of COVID-19, the U.K. is advising its citizens to keep calm and carry on.
For some Britons, the stiff upper lip is starting to wobble. As Italy goes into lockdown and other European countries shut schools and ban large gatherings, U.K. authorities continue to advise most people to keep working, traveling and socializing as usual.
But with officials saying an epidemic of the new coronavirus in the U.K. is all but certain, critics argue that the Conservative government’s low-key approach is inadequate.
“Schools should be shut now,” said Rory Stewart, a former government minister who is running to become mayor of London. “All medium and large gatherings should be canceled. All passengers coming from hot spots should be tested and quarantined.”
The government and its scientific advisers insist it isn't yet time for such stringent measures.
As of Tuesday, the U.K. had confirmed 373 cases of COVID-19, and six deaths.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover in a few weeks. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.
British medics have focused on identifying and isolating people with the virus and tracing their contacts in an effort to contain or — if that fails — slow the spread of the illness.
U.K. officials say canceling big events or making large numbers of people stay home at this point would be counterproductive, because people would tire of the constraints just when they are needed most, at the outbreak’s peak.
“You need to carry the population with you,” said Susan Michie, professor of health psychology at University College London. “Because unless you carry the population with you, then people won’t adhere to it — or a significant proportion won’t — and then you undermine the whole strategy.”
Officials insist they are not complacent, and say the U.K. will introduce stronger measures as the virus spreads. Within the next two weeks, anyone with even mild symptoms of respiratory infection will be told to stay home for a week.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said the government’s response so far had been “measured and well-judged.”
“Containment was always likely to fail in the end,” he said. “But I do judge that it has been successful in holding the epidemic back in the U.K. for some days or weeks.”
The outbreak is a health worry for most Britons. It’s also a political headache for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was labeled the “part-time prime minister” by opponents after his hands-off response to recent floods and early silence on the virus outbreak.
In recent days, he has taken a higher profile and — despite past populist leanings — deferred to his medical and scientific advisers.
Johnson’s Conservative government is also poised to intervene in the economy to cushion the impact of the outbreak, which has hammered global stock markets and hurt travel companies, airlines and bricks-and-mortar retailers.
The government’s annual budget, due on Wednesday, has been hastily rewritten. Treasury chief Rishi Sunak is considering measures to stimulate an economy already weighed down by uncertainty over Britain’s future trade relationship with the European Union.
Business groups urged Sunak to let firms defer tax payments, and to back emergency loans for struggling enterprises. Unions sough a guarantee that self-employed and contract workers will get sick pay if they have to stay home.
Sunak said the economic impact of the virus would be “significant” but temporary. He told the BBC that the government would act to give businesses “a bridge through a temporary period of difficulty so that they can emerge on the other side and we can get back to normal quickly.”
“We don’t know exactly which scenario we might be in, but we’re preparing for all of them,” he said.
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