The British government has defended its position not to implement more draconian measures to contain the coronavirus amid mounting pressure, saying it is being guided by the advice of medical experts.
In a press conference on Monday afternoon, prime minister Boris Johnson said that the government remains in the “contain” stage of dealing with the virus but that it is making “extensive preparations to move to the delay phase”.
He told reporters that the government was aiming to stall any widespread outbreak of COVID-19 until summer to ease pressure on the National Health Service.
"We remain in the contain phase of the outbreak, but watching what is happening around the world, our scientists think containment is extremely unlikely to work on its own, and that is why we are making extensive preparations for a move to the delay phase," Johnson said.
"We are preparing various actions to slow the spread of this disease in order to reduce the strain it places on the NHS. The more we can delay the peak of the spread to the summer, the better the NHS will be able to manage."
At present, the medical advice for those with severe symptoms of flu is to self-isolate and stay at home. Within 10–14 days, however, it is likely that even those with mild symptoms will be asked to do the same.
Former Conservative MP and London mayoral hopeful Rory Stewart has criticised the approach and called for the government to shut schools and cancel large and medium gatherings of people, saying it “has made a serious mistake” and warned that it “should be acting more aggressively”.
Johnson was backed up by some of the UK's leading experts. Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told reporters that the government needs to wait to implement more serious measures until they are necessary.
Outlining why the UK was taking a different approach from some other countries, he said the advice was "very driven by the data, very driven by the science".
He said: "It's important that no single intervention on its own is enough to make a difference. You have to do things in combination, and you have to do them at the right time — do it too early and you just end up with the measures not having any effect.
"We need to get the measures at the right time so they can be implemented properly and people can actually adhere to them," he added.
England's chief medical officer, Chris Witty, added that "it's not just a matter of what you do; it's also a matter of when you do it, because anything we do, we've got to be able to sustain.
"Once you've started these things, you'll have to continue through the peak, and that is for a period of time. And there is a risk, if we go too early, people will understandably get fatigued and it will be difficult to sustain this over time. So getting the timing right is absolutely critical to making this work."
Earlier on Monday, speaking in the House of Commons chamber, health secretary Matt Hancock also told members of Parliament that the government’s approach is “guided by the science” and that “acting too early creates its own risks”, adding that the government had not given up hope of containing the disease.
Responding to Hancock in the chamber, shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said he supported the government’s decision to take a lead from the experts, but said MPs were seeking more clarity on behalf of their constituents.
He said: “Many of our constituents are now asking … why we’re not yet considering more home working. Should we be asking those over 65 to isolate? Should we be cancelling larger events? And should those returning from Northern Italy, for example, be taken to quarantine?”
The government has admitted that coronavirus is going to spread across the UK “in a significant way” — but has said it is not yet time to enact social distancing measures.
Ministers are coming under pressure to take stronger action to combat the spread of the virus, amid soaring numbers of deaths in Italy, where a large part of the country is under quarantine.
Some 319 people across the UK had tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, as of 9am on Monday — a rise of 46 from the previous day. Five people have died.
In response to a question from the SNP’s Martyn Day, Hancock confirmed that any move from containment to delay would involve a transition between the two stages, adding: “We won’t give up hope of containing this disease while we can still take containment actions, and many of the actions that are needed to contain it are also very effective for delaying.”
While opposition MPs have been reluctant to criticise the government’s expert-led approach, in a statement Stewart said, "The government has made a serious mistake.
"They should be acting much more aggressively to contain coronavirus. Schools should be shut now. If the government are not prepared to shut them now, they should — at the very least — state clearly and transparently what their triggers will be for closing schools over the next few days," he said.
“All medium and large gatherings should be cancelled. All passengers coming from hotspots should be tested and quarantined. There is no excuse for passengers not being tested off a plane from Milan last night.
“There is no justification for half-hearted measures. The government and the mayor keep saying they are simply following 'scientific advice'. But the scientists are clear that this is now a political decision — on whether the government are prepared to spend very serious sums of money, and take a large economic hit, to maximise protection of the population."
Stewart added that the response in China "shows both the dangers of acting too slowly — at first — and then the benefits of acting decisively. We should have no regrets about spending money to do the absolute maximum to prevent the spread of this disease.”
Dr Michael Brady, medical director of the Terence Higgins Trust, and the government's LGBT health adviser, also disagreed that fatigue would set in if people were asked to limit their movement too soon.
He told BuzzFeed News: “I would argue the other way — that if you do start limiting it, you might be more used to it or prepared for it when we all start having to limit what we do.
“It feels like we’re potentially on the verge of much more population-level restrictions, but we’re not there yet … I think if people are particularly concerned and it’s not overly impactful, then it's not an unreasonable thing to do at the moment.”
However, in addition to the risk of fatigue, the government is concerned with the economic impact of introducing stricter measures too soon: Closing schools and nurseries, for example, would mean parents across the country would need to stay home, many of whom are health care workers.
Officials have also told how cancelling football matches, for example, may not solve the problem because fans will just congregate in pubs to watch games on television. The size of the crowd may make no difference in the spread of the virus.
The other issue is the social impact that such measures have. It is likely that more steps will be taken to protect elderly people because they are at the highest risk of developing the disease. But the danger is that they become too isolated, with very few visitors, and that extreme loneliness could be even worse for their health. All measures need to be taken in moderation, according to the experts advising the government.
Earlier on Monday, every Whitehall department and devolved administration was represented at a Cobra meeting, chaired by the prime minister. Whitty and Vallance were also present. Whitty said on Thursday that the country was already moving into the second “delay” stage.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, or SAGE, advises ministers on the steps they could take to limit the spread of the disease and the optimum time to do this. It is expected to meet again on Tuesday.