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The UK approach towards coronavirus

The United Kingdom is finding it hard to keep calm and carry on in the face of the spread of the coronavirus

Manal Lotfy , Tuesday 17 Mar 2020
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The motto “Keep Calm and Carry On” is not only a motivational phrase in the UK. It is also a reflection of the famous British “stiff upper lip” attitude in the face of adversity.

This motivational motto was produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for World War II, with the aim of raising the morale of the British public. So, when the Covid-10 coronavirus pandemic hit the world, the British government’s reaction was also restrained and measured.  

So far, schools, universities and most businesses are still open in Britain. But this is now changing in a rapid way.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared on Monday night that “now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel.” He said that “you should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues” at a news conference alongside his chief medical and scientific advisers.

He emphasised that people with “the most serious health conditions” should be “shielded” from social contacts for 12 weeks, starting this weekend.

The government also unveiled on Tuesday more financial plans to help the economy during the coronavirus outbreak after firms warned restrictions could put them out of business. The new financial plans come less than a week after Finance Minister Rishi Sunak published his budget, which included 12 billion pounds specifically targeted at measures to get the country through the outbreak.

So far, the number of people who have died of the virus in the UK has reached 55.

More than 1,500 people have tested positive for the virus, but the actual number of cases is estimated to be between 35,000 and 50,000.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, said the UK was now “three weeks” behind Italy. The worst-affected nation outside China where the virus originated, Italy now has more than 25,000 recorded cases and has suffered more than 2,000 deaths.

The UK had previously resisted taking some of the tough measures seen in other European countries, which have banned large events and mass gatherings, shut schools and closed their borders to slow the spread of the virus.

But the British government’s plan has shifted because the scientific modelling had showed that the UK was on course for a “catastrophic epidemic.” A strategy of just slowing the spread of the virus, but not trying to stop it, would have overwhelmed intensive care units, according to various experts.

The modelling by Imperial College London about the spread rate in the UK has been heavily informed by the experience in Italy and is influencing decisions at the heart of government.

Its calculations predicted 260,000 deaths in the UK, and the new measures seek to drive down the number of cases to very low levels.

Johnson said the number of UK cases was starting to rise rapidly, and “without drastic action” they could double every five or six days. The British authorities now say that if anyone in a household has a fever or persistent cough, everyone there should stay at home for 14 days.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as a fever and a cough, and most people recover. The worldwide outbreak has sickened over 179,000 people and left more than 7,000 dead. Over 78,000 people have recovered, most of them in China.

Johnson also said the government would no longer give emergency-services support to large gatherings, though he did not ban them outright. But unlike schools in most other European countries, those in Britain remain open.

“We think that, on balance, it is best to keep schools open, but we appreciate that this is something we need to keep under review,” Johnson said.

Britain lags behind countries such as Italy, Germany and France in the number of infections, and the government’s scientific advisers have said that implementing draconian measures too early will make them harder to sustain as the outbreak peaks in two or three months.

All of London’s West End theatres said on Monday that they would close in the wake of the government announcement. The Society of London Theatre, which represents scores of venues, said it was “not a decision that is taken lightly” and that going dark would affect 290,000 workers.

UK Hospitality, which represents pubs, coffee shops, nightclubs and other leisure venues, said the government’s announcement would be “catastrophic for businesses and jobs.”

“The government has effectively shut the hospitality industry without any support, and this announcement will lead to thousands of businesses closing their doors for good and hundreds of thousands of job losses,” Chief Executive Kate Nicholls said.

UK airports may shut down “within weeks without government intervention,” according to the Airport Operators Association which represents companies running British hubs.

The trade body’s Chief Executive Karen Dee said on Tuesday that “governments across the world are supporting their national aviation industries, as many parts of the global travel industry have come to a halt.”

“As some airlines call on the UK government to act similarly, we are clear that airports will shut down in weeks unless urgent action is taken to support the industry.”

She called for measures including emergency financing as a measure of last resort, requiring banks to temporarily not enforce financial performance-based banking covenants and suspending business rates and other government and local government rates and taxes.

According to the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent budget think tank, Britain also faces a wartime scenario for its public finances as it seeks to offset the coronavirus hit to companies through higher public spending and borrowing.

Robert Chote, head of the office, told a parliamentary committee that Britain’s budget deficit had hit 20 per cent of economic output during World War II and now was not the time for the government to be “squeamish” about higher debt.

The outbreak has already had a huge effect on everyday life in Britain. Passengers on trains and the London Underground are down by a fifth as some businesses ask staff to work from home, and universities are moving classes online.

Supermarkets have been stripped of staples including toilet paper, pasta and rice as shoppers ignore government appeals not to hoard supplies.

Johnson said the measures he had announced were unprecedented in peacetime. “We have to accept that it is a very considerable psychological, behavioural change that we’re asking you, we’re asking the public, the nation to do,” he said. “But I have absolutely no doubt that we can do it, that we can do it together.”

Amid growing criticisms of the government, opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn met Johnson on Monday evening and demanded support for the self-employed and those who cannot get statutory sick pay.

He described the government’s communication strategy as “worse than inadequate,” adding that it had not shared the science behind its decisions with the public.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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