Britain’s stepped-up social distancing measures explained

BY Jack Dickens | tweet jackfdickens   /  16 March 2020

Social distancing measures will be significantly increased as new cases of coronavirus in the UK continue to rise, the Prime Minister announced today at his latest Downing Street press conference.

He was joined again by Chris Whitty, the UK’s Chief Medical Adviser, and Patrick Vallance, the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser.

The conference was the first in what will now be a daily occurrence as the government seeks to provide the public with up-to-date, clear information while the pandemic continues to unfold.

What are the new measures being introduced?

Boris Johnson, with Whitty and Vallance has announced new social distancing measures which together represent an important and noticeable stepping up of the UK’s response to the virus. There are two crucial features, which will be effective from tomorrow.

The first new measure is that the government will now be asking those who live with other people to stay at home for at least two weeks – 14 days – if another member of their household has either a temperature or a persistent cough.

It is crucial, the government says, that the public implement “whole household isolation” for two weeks – that is, if one person in a home is infected, all others who are living in that home should isolate themselves for 14 days. This should be done even if they do not exhibit symptoms, since it is possible that many can carry the virus while being asymptomatic.

Whitty said that it is important to observe this measure because: “If you actually are in a household with someone who’s got coronavirus, there’s a reasonably high chance that you will be infected and go on to get it.”

Two weeks is the period after which they estimate that a whole household should no longer be infectious.

Secondly, the government is also advising that the public cease all unnecessary contact with others and all non-essential travel. Downing Street is calling upon everyone to “avoid pubs, clubs, theatres, and all other such social venues” and to work from home as much as possible.

The government says it will now no longer be supporting mass gatherings – while not imposing an outright ban, they are not going to provide them resources. This means that they will be saving personnel – police, ambulances and potentially armed forces – to free up capacity for the health crisis.

The government is also encouraging vulnerable groups to distance themselves from others as much as possible for a period of twelve weeks, but possibly longer. The government advice on social distancing can be found here.

What is the purpose of the UK government’s strategy?

The Prime Minister also announced that the “overriding objective” of the government in introducing these measures is “to reduce suffering, to minimise the incidence of disease, and save lives.”

The UK’s plan for combatting the virus remains to try and reduce the size of the infection at its peak and push the peak back to later in the year, when the NHS is better able to cope with the strain.

Patrick Vallance, said: “The objectives, as I laid out last time, are to really suppress the curve in order to keep it below NHS capacity… to shield the vulnerable… and protect them across this period”.

The strategy aims to make sure those who are most at risk will be shielded from the worst of the pandemic, which is expected to come over the next twelve weeks.

The three most vulnerable groups, according to the government, are those over 70, those of all ages with underlying health conditions which mean that their immune systems are compromised, and pregnant women.

Both Johnson and his advisers were eager to clarify that “herd immunity” – to the detriment of saving lives – is not the key objective of their action programme, even if it will possibly be a fortunate consequence of it.

Why are they introducing these measures now?

The measures are being introduced now because SAGE – the government’s emergency scientific advisory group –  has data and mathematical modelling which indicates that the UK is now about to enter “the growth part” of the infection’s upward curve. That is, from now on, their research indicates, cases will continue to rise –  and could do so rapidly – if we do not now act fast to introduce strict social distancing.

According to Vallance, the UK is now only a few weeks behind the situation currently being experienced by Italy.

Today’s latest figures show that the number of confirmed cases in the UK has now reached 1,543, with an extra 171 being added today alone.

Italy has reported 349 new deaths today, taking the total number of fatalities in the country to over 2,000.

The disease has not advanced to an equal degree in all parts of the UK, however. London, it was revealed, is about two weeks further ahead of the rest of the country. Accordingly, it is particularly crucial for the capital to take the government’s advice seriously, Johnson said.

In light of this, the government decided to trigger stricter measures.

How long will the restrictions last for?

The government’s chief advisers, acting on the advice of SAGE, have warned the country that this will not be a quick process.

The course of the epidemic in the UK is expected to last for at least twelve weeks before case numbers begin to decline and return to a relatively small number.

Whitty said that the government is trying to strike a balance between sustainability and effectiveness in its response.

“This is going to be a marathon not a sprint”, Whitty said. He added: “People should be thinking of a minimum of weeks to months and, depending on how it goes, it may be longer. It is really important that people realise that they are in for the long haul on this.”

“But this is really important – if we are going to defend the ability of the NHS to treat people, if we are to actually minimise mortality, we’ve got to see this as a long game.”

How will the measures be enforced?

The government at this stage has expressed its hope that the public will take the official advice seriously without the threat of serious fines or other criminal sanctions being imposed on those who do not.

Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has said that she and her force will aim to avoid using extraordinary police powers on a regular basis.

The government will instead be relying upon Britons to make the right decisions and act responsibly.

Johnson said: “We are a mature and grown up liberal democracy where people understand very clearly the advice which is being given to them”. He hopes that the British public will respect the fact that their actions will have the potential to save the NHS from great turmoil and strain.

Vallance also stressed this point, saying that social distancing measures are not easy. “But they are important and they will have the effect if we all do it. This is a matter for us to take accountability to make sure we help each other, protect ourselves, and protect the NHS.”

Still, the Prime Minister did say that the government retains a host of emergency powers under the 1984 Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, and emergency legislation which is due to go before the House of Commons tomorrow. If necessary, these powers will be employed.

How does the UK response compare globally?

In other European countries where lockdowns have been implemented – such as Italy and Spain – criminal sanctions are being imposed upon those who violate quarantine measures. Those who infringe on the restrictions face the threat of fines and jail sentences. These countries’ governments see this as the only way to ensure that the general lockdown is obeyed.

Schools have not yet been closed in the UK, as they have been in Ireland and France.

The UK is also not testing as much of the non-hospitalised population for the virus as other countries are at the moment. According to the Financial Times, South Korea – a country with a similar population size to that of the UK – has undertaken 4,000 tests per 1 million of the population outside of hospitals.

By contrast, the UK has so far conducted fewer than 500 for every 1 million of the population outside of hospitals. But it is important to note that Britain is also believed to be behind where South Korea is in the projected course of the infection.

Whitty and Vallance said that they are hoping that the UK will increase its testing capacity so that it can match the large number of tests conducted in Asian countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan. In all of these countries, rigorous testing has been accompanied by a decline in new case numbers and a slowed spread of infection.

The priority, at this stage, is still to keep stocks of tests flowing to hospitals and for essential workers in emergency services as well as those working in vital industries such as food production and food retailing.

What did the Prime Minister say about the potential impact on the country?

Johnson was sombre. “I can’t remember anything like it in my lifetime. I don’t think there’s really been anything like it in peace time. We have to accept that it’s a very significant psychological, behavioural change that we’re asking you – that we’re asking the nation, the public – to do,” he said.

The Prime Minister tried to strike an upbeat tone at several points, however, and ended by telling the country: “Our economy will eventually bounce back because the fundamentals are strong.”


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