While growing number of countries across Europe close schools, restrict travel and limit public gatherings to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, Britain has remained resolute in not following suit.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Thursday that the country will not close schools or ban sports events, at least not for now. Instead, the Prime Minister has encouraged people who are ill to stay home for a week, suggested the elderly should avoid cruises and advised schools to cancel trips abroad.
“We are guided by the science in everything we do,” Mr. Johnson told reporters in defending the government’s response to the pandemic. He stressed that the government will consider further action but that for now health officials were hoping to delay the spread of the virus. And he said adopting stronger measures, such as banning large gatherings, likely wouldn’t do much good and that it was more important to prevent the spread of the virus in homes and workplaces.
He added that he wants to take the right steps at the right time. ”We’ve all got to be clear, this is the worst public-health crisis for a generation,” he said. “I must level with the British public: Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
Britain has 590 confirmed cases of the virus although officials say up to 10,000 people may have already been infected. A total of 10 people have died, all elderly patients with underlying health issues. There are more than 25,000 cases across Europe, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The bulk of those cases are in Italy which has more than 15,000 confirmed cases and 1,016 deaths.
Mr. Johnson’s gradual approach to tackling the illness has been at odds with several other European countries that have announced far more sweeping measures. On Thursday, France, Ireland, Norway, Lithuania, Denmark and Slovakia announced plans to close schools and universities, and ban public gatherings. The Netherlands has also restricted gatherings and closed major museums while the Czech Republic shut its borders to travellers from 15 countries.
The British Prime Minister is also facing pressure from inside the country to go farther. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said on Thursday that as of next week her government would begin banning public gatherings of more than 500 people. She said the move was aimed mainly at freeing public services that would otherwise be tied up at the events.
Britain’s Electoral Commission also called on the government to delay local elections planned for May 7, which involve 118 regional councils, and mayoral races in several cities including London, Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. Officials in Northern Ireland have said they may have to restrict some health services to cope with the virus.
John Ashton, a former regional director for Public Health England, has criticized the government’s approach as being too pedantic. “The pandemic declaration was a kick up the bottom for the British government,” he told the BBC. “We have had a complacent, academic attitude to this outbreak.”
However, Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, backed the measures and said that timing the response was critical since the outbreak was far from peaking in Britain. ”If you move too early, people get fatigued. This is a long haul,” Dr. Whitty told reporters Thursday.
He also said that closing schools would be ineffective since children are not a high-risk group for the virus. ”Closing schools has big knock-on effects across society and has to be justified for very strong reasons,” he said. ”And the evidence for doing this appears to be quite weak.”
Britain’s Chief Scientific Officer, Sir Patrick Vallance, also said that banning sports events would be largely unproductive since that would only encourage people to gather in small venues, such as pubs, where the virus can spread much faster. He also said it was far too late to restrict flights from certain countries.
Mr. Johnson shied away from questions about U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to ban all passenger travel from much of Europe. Mr. Trump announced the ban late Wednesday and it covers 26 countries that are part of the Schengen common visa area. That includes most EU members such as Italy, France, Germany and Spain. It does not include Britain and Ireland, which aren’t part of the Schengen area.
The President justified the ban by saying the EU had failed to take the same precautions as the United States in banning travel from China in order to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. That drew a terse response from EU leaders who chastised Mr. Trump for acting unilaterally.
“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation,” said a statement on Thursday from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. “The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires co-operation rather than unilateral action.”
Shares plummeted on European stock markets. London’s FTSE 100 index closed down 10.9 per cent on Thursday, its second-worst trading day ever, while Germany’s DAX fell 12.2 per cent.