The UK dramatically ramped up its response to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak today, with prime minister Boris Johnson calling on everyone in the country to stop all non-essential contact with other people.
Johnson said people should also stop all unnecessary travel and work from home where they can, and avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other social spaces. Whole households should also self-isolate for 14 days if any individual in it develops symptoms, under new guidance issued today.
The stringent steps were needed, Johnson said, because the UK was now approaching the “fast growth” part of the upwards curve of cases. The aim of the actions is to delay the epidemic’s peak and enable the National Health Service to cope, he added.
The UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said the UK was now probably three weeks behind where Italy is with the epidemic, and warned that cases are now probably doubling every five days or so.
While the transmission of the coronavirus in the UK has so far been relatively evenly spread out geographically, compared with the concentration of cases in the north of Italy, Johnson said it now appears London is a “few weeks ahead” of the rest of the UK.
Asked how long today’s tough new measures will be in place for, the chief medical adviser to the UK, Chris Whitty, said: “People should be thinking of minimum of weeks to months and, depending how it goes, it may be longer. It’s really important people realise they’re in for the long haul on this.”
Whitty identified three groups that should take particular care to minimise their social contact: the over-70s, anyone who in adult life would normally be advised to have the flu vaccination, and pregnant women. More detailed guidance will be issued online, he said.
The announcements came at a press conference, the first of what the government promised would now be a televised daily briefing on the outbreak. Ministers today also asked UK businesses, including car manufacturers, for help building ventilators to add to the 5000 the country already has.
The new measures came as official figures confirmed 1543 people have tested positive for the virus out of 42,562 tests. The death toll has reached 55.
The UK’s different approach to other countries – holding back on more extreme restrictions until near the peak of infections – has come under scrutiny in recent days. The UK government last week took the step of stopping testing for people with mild symptoms, and stopped short of major restrictions on travel, gatherings or shops.
The head of the World Health Organization told journalists today the measures countries were implementing weren’t enough. “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, although he didn’t name any one country. In response, Vallance said he agreed that testing was “absolutely critical”.
More than 480 researchers, mostly mathematicians and computer scientists, have now signed an open letter saying they are deeply concerned by the timeline of the government’s plan. “Under unconstrained growth, this outbreak will affect millions of people in the next few weeks,” they wrote.
The signatories argued that existing social distancing measures were insufficient to slow the spread. “We believe that additional and more restrictive measures should be taken immediately, as it is already happening in other countries across the world,” they wrote.
Separately, a group of more than 600 behavioural scientists have questioned the UK government’s justification of holding back tough steps on the grounds that people will get fatigued and stop complying with them. “We are not convinced that enough is known about ‘behavioural fatigue’ or to what extent these insights apply to the current exceptional circumstances,” they said, in another open letter. They urged the government to publish the evidence underpinning its decisions.
The office of the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, told it is “working towards” making public the evidence it is basing its policies on.