London: The U.K. government is battling criticism of a coronavirus plan that blends blunt talk of the pandemic’s toll with modest steps that fall far short of measures taken in other countries.
Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said in broadcast interviews Friday that the infection rate could hit 60% of the British population, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that “many more” families will lose loved ones. The approach is aimed at making sure the right interventions are made at the right time to deal with an outbreak that’s going to last months, officials said.
The U.K. risks becoming an outlier in the global fight against the fast-spreading coronavirus, as nations across Europe take more aggressive steps such as closing schools to respond to a widening crisis. The government faces a growing backlash after saying Thursday that it was shifting strategy away from efforts to contain the spread of the disease toward moves aimed at delaying the worst of the epidemic.
“I’m very worried in the U.K. that we’re not acting quickly enough,” Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said by phone. “Speed is of the essence. That’s what we’ve learned with this virus and how contagious it is.”
Vallance defended the U.K.’s approach, saying officials are trying to reduce and broaden the peak of the outbreak, “not to suppress it completely.” A 60% infection rate would help build up a degree of “herd immunity,” he said.
Asked why the U.K. was still going ahead with large events, such as Saturday’s Six Nations Championship rugby match, Vallance said it’s about impact, not headlines.
“It’s eye-catching to say stop those — it’s not actually a big effect on the transmission,” Vallance said in an interview on Radio 4. “I think it’s more likely that there will be transmission in pubs and other areas where people are aggregating watching it than in the actual stadium itself.”
A number of high-profile individuals have disclosed infections in the last 24 hours, including the wife of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the manager of English soccer club Arsenal and Australia’s minister of home affairs.
New York City declared a state of emergency, bringing the financial and cultural capital of the U.S. to a standstill, while schools around the world moved to shut their doors. Sports groups from Major League Baseball to the PGA Tour suspended play, and Walt Disney Co. closed theme parks in the U.S. and Europe.
The U.K. measures aren’t “trivial” and will have a significant impact in slowing the pathogen’s advance, Vallance said in another interview. The U.K. isn’t ruling out closing schools, but has decided against it for now, he said. If the government were to take that step, facilities would have to be closed for a prolonged period of “many months,” he said.
“One of the questions when you start something is how are you going to undo it,” he said. “When you undo it, if you don’t get it right, it bounces back.”
One of the main concerns for the government is potentially overburdening the already stretched and understaffed National Health Service. The U.K.’s strategy has drawn criticism from medical professionals. Richard Horton, editor of the prominent British medical journal The Lancet, said on Twitter this week that the government is “playing roulette with the public.” Officials have been too slow to implement measures to delay the spread of the virus, including canceling events and “social distancing,” he said.
Sridhar, the public health specialist, said there’s a middle path between a complete shutdown and carrying on as normal and called the government’s position “puzzling” given the U.K. agrees that the outbreak is very serious. She worries about giving up on the effort to track down contacts of infected people, which is essential in delaying the spread.
“If you look at the success of Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and China, they had really rigorous contact tracing,” she said. “It’s almost throwing in the towel too early.”
The estimate of 60% equates to about 40 million cases in the U.K. and 800,000 deaths, assuming a fatality rate of 2%. Herd immunity is usually used in the context of diseases for which there are vaccines, Sridhar said. So far, there’s none for the new coronavirus.
U.K. government officials said as many as 10,000 Britons may already be infected and that the peak of the outbreak could be in 10-14 weeks.
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt questioned the government’s position Thursday, saying he was surprised the U.K. hadn’t moved to stop all mass gatherings. There was evidence of other countries like Thailand that have been “strikingly successful” at stopping the spread of the virus by taking “social distancing” measures, he told Channel 4 News.
Vallance said Friday that if people with flu-like symptoms follow guidance to self-isolate for seven days it should reduce the peak of infections by about 20%.
As the number of infected grows, many people are concerned it’s going to push the NHS beyond its limits. Stephen McLarnon, founder and chief executive officer of HealthSectorTalent, which works with the government on NHS recruitment, shares those concerns.
“Lack of investment in nursing, front-line nursing staff, and the over-reliance on temporary agency staff, is potentially going to make the system be at breaking point,” said McLarnon.-Bloomberg