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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and chief scientific officer Patrick Vallance attend a news conference on the ongoing situation with the coronavirus disease in London, Britain on March 17, 2020.POOL/The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is facing renewed criticism of the government’s go-slow strategy to combat COVID-19 even as he unveiled more than $500-billion worth of support for businesses and workers affected by the disease.

Britain has remained alone among most European countries in not closing schools, shutting borders or requiring people to stay at home. Instead, the government has stuck with a more gradual approach and left most of its measures voluntary. That has been in sharp contrast to France, Spain, the Czech Republic and Italy, which have implemented mandatory lockdowns while several other countries have closed schools and borders.

Mr. Johnson has insisted that the government is introducing appropriate actions at the appropriate time. On Tuesday, he said the decision to leave schools open was under “continuous review,” but he declined to say if and when they will close.

Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, told a parliamentary committee that closing schools was “not without quite complex consequences.” He said children have not been particularly susceptible to the illness and closing schools would be hard on health-care workers’ families. Sir Patrick also cited Singapore and Taiwan as countries that have tackled the new coronavirus without massive school closings.

But pressure is building to change course as a growing number of parents keep their children home and some private schools defy the advice and shut their doors. The lack of a clear policy on schools is “causing chaos and confusion and placing intolerable pressure on all staff in schools and their families,” said Chris Keates, acting general secretary of the teachers’ union.

The Prime Minister has also come under fire from businesses after he announced on Monday that people should voluntarily stay away from pubs, restaurants, theatres and other social venues. Many business groups criticized the measure as vague and said that without a formal government order to close, companies might not qualify for insurance or other compensation.

“This is catastrophic for businesses and jobs,” said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, which represents the restaurant and hotel industry. “This latest advice leaves the industry in limbo, with no recourse to insurance.”

On Tuesday, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, moved to quell the outcry by announcing a £330-billion ($567-billion) package of loan guarantees and direct financial assistance to businesses. The package included slashing some business taxes, increasing grants to small companies and a three-month mortgage holiday for homeowners affected by the virus.

He also promised a separate assistance program for airlines and airports. "We want to help [businesses] get through this,” Mr. Sunak said. “It is better for them, better for the economy and better for everyone.”

Several other European countries have also outlined extensive aid programs as the economic toll of the virus increases. The French and German governments are each offering €500-billion ($784-billion) worth of loan guarantees and financial support for companies and employees. Spain has announced a €200-billion ($314-billion) package and Italy is promising to inject €340-billion ($533-billion) into the economy.

But even those measures may not be enough and some analysts said the British effort may need to be far greater to address the problem. Rupert Harrison, an economist and former chief of staff to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, said the government’s bailout may have to go well over £500-billion ($861-billion).

There were growing signs on Tuesday of the economic damage that the virus is already causing in Europe. British retailer Laura Ashley filed for bankruptcy protection, putting nearly 3,000 jobs at risk. Car giants Ford, Nissan, Daimler and Vauxhall also plan to close plants across the continent. Gatwick Airport laid off 200 workers and several other airports said they may have to close because of a plunge in passenger traffic.

Europe remains the epicentre of the virus outside China. So far, Italy has been the hardest hit, and on Tuesday, the country announced that the number of confirmed cases had topped 31,000 with 2,500 deaths. In Britain, the number of cases increased by 407 from Monday to 1,950, according to the Department of Health. A total of 69 people have died from the virus and all had underlying health issues.

Britain has yet to see the peak of infections and a study by researchers at London’s Imperial College said as many as 250,000 people could die from the outbreak. Sir Patrick told the parliamentary committee that health officials are hoping that mitigation efforts by the government will keep deaths to around 20,000. He added that seasonal flu kills about 8,000 people annually.

The Imperial College study also said government measures such as self-isolation and social distancing will likely have to remain in place for up to 18 months until a vaccine is ready. Sir Patrick said the challenge for all governments is knowing when to reduce the restrictions without causing the virus to rebound. “We haven’t got immunity to this virus and as we back off, it could come back,” he warned.

Countries try to slow the spread of COVID-19 as number of cases rise

by David Rising and Tim Sullivan

Mass disruptions shuddered across the globe Tuesday as governments struggled to slow the spread of the coronavirus while also trying to keep their economies afloat.

Spain, now the fourth-most infected country, saw the number of people with the virus rise by more than 2,000 in one day to 11,178 and virus-related deaths jump by almost 200 to 491. Only China, Italy and Iran had more infections.

With the number of cases worldwide topping 190,000, a surge of patients in Madrid’s hospitals has fuelled worries in Europe and elsewhere of what lies ahead.

The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. COVID-19 has killed more than 7,300 people so far, while more than 80,000 have recovered.

Some bright spots emerged. Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus was first detected late last year and which has been under lockdown for weeks, reported just one new case Tuesday.

Spain has requested medical supplies from China.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez spoke Tuesday as Beijing was preparing its first shipment of aid to the European country, according to the Chinese embassy in Madrid.

Mr. Sanchez said the call for Chinese aid had been made a week earlier and that it was a subject he discussed with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a phone call on Tuesday.

A spokesman from China’s embassy in Spain said Beijing was readying a shipment of test kits, surgical masks and protection glasses. The official, who was not authorized to be named in media reports, said that China was also “positively considering” sending doctors to Spain.

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