Many countries are now staring down the barrel of a coronavirus epidemic. In the UK, where there are 456 cases as of 11 March, some large gatherings are being cancelled or postponed, and some firms are encouraging staff to work from home.
But should the UK government be going further? There are more drastic measures that could be taken, such as closing schools and colleges, asking everyone to work from home who can, and even telling people to avoid public transport and social gatherings.
Italy is telling everyone to travel only for work or medical reasons, after cases there ballooned to more than 10,000. Many people are asking whether the UK should start doing the same, to avoid case numbers rising so high.
The UK government’s priority isn’t to try to stop the epidemic from happening – that is now considered impossible. Instead, it is aiming to slow down the increase in cases of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
A rapid spike in people who are severely affected and need intensive care is likely to overwhelm hospital beds and resources. A slower start to the outbreak, and a longer duration, makes that less likely – a shift described as “flattening the curve”. In the northern hemisphere, a flatter curve also pushes more cases into the summer months, when fewer people are in hospital due to other respiratory illnesses.
UK officials have said the country may well move to more extreme measures like closing schools in time. But doing this too soon, when people can see there aren’t many people they know who are sick, risks people becoming fed up and disobeying the rules – known as crisis fatigue.
The government is being astute, says Emma Citron, a psychologist in London. “If they ask people to self-isolate now and curtail public gatherings or they close schools, then people can become fed up with strictures and simply stop conforming to them,” she says.
“They are not able to live with a feeling of being almost imprisoned,” says Citron. “It is the ‘all of the time’ nature of it – unlike the curfew of the Blitz in World War II, which was evening only.”
Charlotte Hilton, a psychologist in Nottingham, says people can become desensitised to public health messages over time. “There’s a reason why messages to take the stairs instead of the lift are increasingly ignored after the first week,” she says.
The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, said this week that within about two weeks the government will start advising people with coughs and colds or a fever to stay at home and self-isolate for seven days. But there has been no word on a timetable for when more drastic measures will be brought in.
“The decision on implementing delay measures is a delicate balance of benefits and harms,” Graham Cooke at Imperial College London said in a statement.