Britain’s approach to the outbreak differed from not only their closest neighbours: but some of the most effective approaches employed right across the other side of the world in Asia.
The UK’s first cases were registered at the StayCity Aparthotel on January 29, when two Chinese nationals fell ill in York. The same day, 2 Chinese nationals were discovered with the disease in Italy. However, as cases rose in both countries, Italy decided to implement a lockdown on 9th March: whereas the UK remained open for business.
The first statement from the UK government was released on the 22nd January, which set out for main phases for how the country would seek to fight the coronavirus.
Contain: detect early cases, follow up close contacts, and prevent the disease from taking hold.
Delay: slow the spread within the UK, and (if it does take hold) lower the peak impact and push it away from the winter season.
Research: better understand the virus and the actions that will lessen its effect on the UK population; innovate responses including diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines.
Mitigate: provide the best care possible for people who become ill, support hospitals to maintain essential services and ensure ongoing support for people ill in the community.
As soon as cases appeared in the UK on 31 January 2020, a public health information campaign was launched in the UK, to advise people how to stop the spread of the virus. Travellers to the UK from Hubei province in China, including the capital Wuhan were advised to self-isolate.
Initially, Boris Johnson largely kept Britain open, resisting the kind of lockdowns seen elsewhere in Europe. In a speech on 3 February, Johnson’s main concern was that the “coronavirus will trigger a panic and a desire for market segregation that go beyond what is medically rational to the point of doing real and unnecessary economic damage.”
On 13 March, UK chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance stated one of “the key things we need to do” is to “build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission”.
Vallance said 60% of the UK’s population will need to become infected for herd immunity to be achieved. This stance was criticised by experts who said it would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths and overwhelm the NHS. More than 200 scientists urged the government to rethink the approach in an open letter.
On 4 April, The Times reported that the government’s science adviser, Graham Medley, was still advocating a “herd immunity” strategy.
Restrictions and Social Distancing
On 3 March, the Coronavirus Action Plan was unveiled. This banned large gatherings, closed schools, and advised against socialising, but measures were designed so that the country should be able to continue “as normally as possible”.
It was not until the 23rd of March full lockdown measures were announced. By this point, 6,650 people had tested positive for the virus in the UK, and 335 people had died. In comparison, Ireland chose a different approach and had vastly different results.
The restrictions meant that people could only leave their homes for the following reasons:
– Shopping for basic necessities
– One form of exercise a day – either alone or with members of your household
– Medical need or to provide care help vulnerable person
– Travel to work – but only if necessary and you cannot work from home
For comparison, Italy, who had their first confirmed cases at the same time, began their national quarantine on the 9th March, although regional restrictions had been in place since the 21st February.
Testing and PPE
The government have received criticism over the perceived lack of action to provide Personal Protective Equipment such as medical protective clothes and nitrile exam gloves to health workers, carers and others key workers who have essential jobs who cannot stay at home. Three chances to join an EU scheme to obtain PPE were turned down by the UK Government.
At the beginning of February the NHS had 8000 ventilators. In order to provide hospitals with life saving breathing equipment, the government challenged leading figures in manufacturing to address the assumed 22000 unit shortfall the NHS would experience if the modelling was correct, assuming 30000 would be needed. Again an EU procurement scheme that promises to source proven designs was not joined. In the end, the challenge fell well short of even the 18000 figure that Matt Hancock revised the number down to by 5th April.
Track and Trace
The UK government is now trailing a new mobile app designed to help track and trace anyone who has come into contact with an infected person. Before this minimal efforts were made to trace contacts, beyond the initial wave of infections.
Current State of Play
As of 4th April 2020, the UK is still in lockdown, and has now recorded the 2nd highest number of deaths in Europe, with 28,734, and 191000 confirmed cases. Rates of infection are starting to fall, along with the daily number of deaths. This leaves the UK with the 3rd highest death toll in numbers worldwide, and places it 4th in the number of deaths per million people. It should be noted though that at the time of writing the UK was on course to overtake Italy’s total mortalities within the week.