British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has given an upbeat assessment of the country’s battle against the new coronavirus outbreak, suggesting that the pandemic can be tackled within three months and resisting, for now, a lockdown of London where the virus is quickly spreading.
“We can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks,” Mr. Johnson told a news conference on Thursday. "I’m absolutely confident we can send the virus packing in this country … but only if we take the steps.”
Mr. Johnson later tried to clarify his comments by saying he wasn’t trying to suggest the epidemic will be over by July, just under control. “At the moment, the disease is proceeding in a way that does not seem yet to be responding to our interventions,” he said. “I believe that a combination of the measures that we are asking the public to take and better testing, scientific progress, will enable us to get on top of it within the next 12 weeks.”
London has become the epicentre of the outbreak in Britain with the capital accounting for more than a quarter of the country’s 3,269 confirmed cases. Roughly 40 per cent of the 144 deaths have also been in London. The country is still far behind Italy, which has 41,035 infections and 3,405 deaths, but officials say the pandemic is in the early stages in Britain and that London in particular will see a rapid increase in cases.
On Thursday, Mayor Sadiq Khan closed 40 London Underground stations and restricted some train service in an effort to stem the spread of the disease. Residents have also been advised to avoid pubs, restaurants, theatres and other social venues. But none of those measures have been mandatory and officials have acknowledged that not everyone has been complying.
“The advice from the government is just advice. I think that provides a mixed message,” Mr. Khan told a meeting of city council on Thursday. “We may move to a situation where we move from advice to bans.”
Mr. Johnson also said that compliance had been “patchy” in some parts of the city and that he wouldn’t rule out going further. “As long as we think that people are actually staying away from places where they may transmit or pick up the disease … if we feel that is working, then we just want to say thank you to everybody for that extraordinary effort and encourage everybody to do likewise,” he said. “If we feel that it isn’t working, and we need to bring forward tougher measures, then of course nothing is ruled out.”
Mr. Johnson’s comments came just hours after the Bank of England cut interest rates for the second time in eight days and took more steps in an attempt to boost the flagging economy. Last week, the bank cut its key lending rate from 0.75 per cent to 0.25 per cent. It took that down to a record low of 0.1 per cent on Thursday and also increased its holdings in British government and corporate bonds by £200-billion ($344-billion), which effectively pours money into the economy.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is also expected to announce further measures to help businesses and workers, in addition to a £330-billion package of loans and grants unveiled this week.
“Ultimately none of this will, unfortunately, stop a U.K. recession, which like most of the developed world, now looks inevitable,” said a report Thursday from ING Economics. “But the hope is that many of these measures can help limit the increase in unemployment, and foster a swifter and smoother recovery when the virus shutdowns have passed.”
The government also introduced legislation on Thursday that gives sweeping powers to health-care workers, police and other officials to combat the disease. The bill includes powers to speed up the registration of new nurses and doctors, force the closing of buildings, shut down ports of entry and detain individuals who have contracted the disease.
“These are extraordinary measures that do not apply in normal circumstances,” the government said in introducing the bill.
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