U.K. increases social distancing measures as epidemic gains speed—but stops short of other European countries

March 16, 2020, 9:41 PM UTC

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The British government announced a new set of restrictive social distancing measures Monday, in response to what officials said was an acceleration of the coronavirus epidemic in the country, particularly in London.

The new measures include advice that all people should avoid social contact, especially those in groups that are more vulnerable, and that people should refrain from visiting pubs, restaurants, and theaters. The government also said in a now daily televised update that it would no longer provide emergency and police services for large events, contradicting government briefings over the weekend that mass gatherings would be actively banned beginning this week.

The government also asked all people who could work from home to do so and to avoid all but essential travel. It also recommended that all households self-isolate for 14 days if one person in the home exhibits coronavirus symptoms. Previously the government had only asked individuals exhibiting symptoms to self-isolate for seven days.

“Many people, including millions of active people over 70, may feel, listening to what I’ve just said, that there is something excessive about these measures,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said. “But I have to say I believe they are overwhelmingly worth it to slow the spread of the disease, reduce the peak, to save lives, minimize suffering, and to give our NHS the chance to cope.”

The announcement came after a weekend in which the government faced substantial pressure over its approach to tackling the virus, which has diverged sharply from other European countries, and comments over targeting “herd immunity” and ending testing for those who are not in the hospital.

The government also appeared to be responding to criticism of the communication style, with regular televised press conferences supplemented by background government briefings to news media over the weekend, which helped fuel confusion on the U.K.’s approach.

But the acceleration in measures also marked the fact that the country’s infection rate appears to be “on the fast upswing, or just about to get there” and that London was the epicenter of the outbreak, according to Chief Medical Officer Chris Witty.

On Thursday, Whitty said the U.K. was currently behind the infection trajectory of Italy, Europe’s hardest-hit nation, by about four weeks. Three days later, on Monday, he said the U.K. was now three weeks behind Italy. In the U.K., 1,543 people have tested positive, and 55 have died.

Still, the U.K. government, which has increasingly stood apart from countries including Germany, Spain, and France in not imposing more restrictions to address the epidemic, stopped short of many widespread measures.

Schools in the U.K. remain open, and while the public was advised to avoid large gatherings of any kind, as well as pubs and restaurants, those venues and events are still permitted. Johnson said he was not planning on making the new recommendations legal requirements—enforceable with fines or imprisonment as other nations have done—even though he said the government had ample authority to do so if necessary.

“Most people would accept that that we are a mature, grownup, liberal democracy where people understand very clearly the advice that is being given to them,” he said.  

Johnson said closing schools, as well as even more stringent measures, such as locking down entire cities, as has happened in Italy and Spain, might be necessary in the future, but that it was not yet the right time to impose such measures.

The announcement came the same day as lockdowns accelerated across continental Europe, with Germany following France announcing the widespread closure of public venues.

The U.K. has also not committed to as extensive a testing regime as has been implemented in some other countries, such as South Korea and Singapore. Officials in Singapore and the World Health Organization have criticized the U.K. and a few other nations, such as Switzerland, for not carrying out far more extensive testing.

Whitty said that the U.K. was currently trying to test all intensive care patients and all patients in the hospital with pneumonia, and that it was trying to increase the number of tests and labs so that family doctors in the community could conduct tests. But he said that the test the U.K. is currently using cannot reveal whether someone has previously been infected with coronavirus and perhaps been asymptomatic.

People should expect to need to follow newly announced recommendations for many weeks or months, Whitty said during the press conference.

“We’ve said all along this is a marathon, not a sprint,” Whitty said. He said that people in vulnerable groups should expect to have to practice social distancing for at least 12 weeks and maybe longer.

“The next weeks and months are going to be extraordinarily difficult.”

The government also played down earlier comments that its less stringent policies were part of an effort to try to develop “herd immunity” in Britain.

In response to a question about herd immunity, Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, said the U.K’s policy was to “flatten the curve”—reducing the number of cases at the peak of the epidemic to avoid overwhelming the country’s National Health Service—and that has always been the only goal of the government’s policies.

Herd immunity occurs when a large enough segment of a population has immunity to a virus, preventing its transmission to the rest of the group that does not have immunity. This is usually achieved through vaccination programs, but it can also occur when a large number of people are infected with a virus and recover, provided their bodies produce long-lasting antibodies.

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