London (CNN)There was something contradictory in Boris Johnson’s speech about Britain’s response to the coronavirus on Thursday.
Flanked by the country’s chief scientific and medical advisers, the Prime Minister announced that his government was moving to the “delay” phase of its plan to tackle the outbreak, and warned Britons that they were facing their “worst public health crisis for a generation” and should be prepared “to lose loved ones before their time.”
And yet, faced with such grave prospects, would the UK be taking the same stringent precautions as other affected countries? No, was the answer. At least not for now.
The British government has repeatedly said it does not believe that banning large-scale gatherings and closing schools — like Italy, France, Germany and Spain have done — would be effective in preventing the spread of the disease.
This comes despite the fact that parts of the British Isles, including the Republic of Ireland and Scotland (which is in the UK but has a separate healthcare system), are now emulating their continental neighbors.
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The reason the UK has held off stricter “social distancing” measures appears to be rooted in the government’s prediction that the outbreak may not peak until 14 weeks from now — and that people will not be willing to drastically alter their ways of life and stick to the new rules for over three months, so there’s little point imposing more restrictions just yet.
The latest recommendation for Britons is to self-isolate for seven days if they begin to experience a persistent cough or high temperature, and to continue with rigorous hygiene like frequently washing their hands and disinfecting surfaces.
Government ministers claim their decisions are being led purely by science. That science, they say, currently suggests that it would be beneficial for the country to build up some sort of herd immunity to the novel coronavirus strain in the long run. In short, authorities do want some Britons to get the bug, especially since for many, its symptoms will not be particularly debilitating.
The approach has divided opinion in the medical community. Some experts have accused Johnson of failing to grasp the severity of the situation, while others have praised the government for refusing to bow to continent-wide pressure to clamp down on the public’s movements.
As of Friday, the number of confirmed cases in the UK stood at 798, with 10 deaths. However, the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance has admitted it was possible that 5,000 to 10,000 people may already be infected. And with testing capacity now about to be ramped up to 10,000 people a day, numbers will surely rise.
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