UK defends its 'outlier' coronavirus response

Critics, even from ruling party, argue government not moving aggressively as other nations

Karim El-Bar   | 14.03.2020
UK defends its 'outlier' coronavirus response


The British government defended itself Friday against criticism it was not taking serious measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

The government said those with mild symptoms or a temperature above 37.8 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) should stay at home for at least one week, schools should cancel trips abroad, and the elderly should not go on cruises.

But the government stopped short of following other European countries in closing schools and banning large public events.

Also on Friday, it announced mayoral and local elections in England and Wales would be delayed for one year.

Conservative criticism

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed concern the U.K. seemed to be an “outlier” compared to other countries with regards to its response to the virus.

Hunt is currently the chair of parliament’s Health Select Committee – and was British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s main challenger for leadership of the Conservative Party last year, and in turn the country.

“I think it is surprising and concerning that we're not doing any of it at all when we have just four weeks before we get to the stage that Italy is at,” he told BBC Newsnight. “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.”

He said he was “personally surprised that we're still allowing external visits to care homes.”

“It’s extremely grave,” Hunt said. “We are in a national emergency.”

Former government minister and current Conservative London mayoral candidate Rory Stewart told Sky News the U.K. was “just not taking this seriously,” and called for “radical” action from the government, including school closures.

“Our government has decided that it doesn’t make sense to try and suppress this. I think we should be taking the approach taken in China and South Korea,” Stewart said.

Government defends itself

England’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance defended the government’s approach.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4, he said the government wanted to build immunity among the population and broaden the peak of the epidemic so as not to overload the health service.

“What we don’t want is everybody to end up getting it in a short period of time so we swamp and overwhelm NHS services – that’s the flattening of the peak,” he said.

“If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back and it bounces back at the wrong time,” he said. “Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely; also, because the vast majority of people get a mild illness, to build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission, at the same time we protect those who are most vulnerable to it. Those are the key things we need to do.

“This is quite likely, I think, to become an annual virus, an annual seasonal infection,” he added.

Scathing criticism

Former Director of Public Health for North-West England Professor John Ashton, speaking on the BBC’s Question Time program, said: “I’m embarrassed by the situation in this country. This talk of four stages, and we’re now moving on from the containment thing – we’ve lost the plot here. We haven’t taken the action that we should have taken four or five weeks ago.”

“Boris Johnson should have convened Cobra at the outset when it became clear what was cooking up,” he said of the emergency government meeting. “Countries that took firm action at the time - if you look at what happened in Hong Kong and Singapore, which had a lot of cases initially but which took firm action and they’ve got the thing under control. We’ve lost control here.”

Speaking to the Guardian, Ashton said: “We have a superficial prime minister who has got no grasp of public health. Our lot are behaving like 19th-century colonialists playing a five-day game of cricket.

“You can’t just plan this from an office in Whitehall. It’s pathetic. The government doesn’t seem to understand classic public health. You need to be out and about. You need to get your hands dirty – though preferably gloved and using frequent gel,” he said.

After emerging in Wuhan, China in December, the virus has spread to at least 123 countries and territories.

The global death toll nears 5,000, with more than 132,500 confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization, which declared the outbreak a pandemic.

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