Soaring temperatures and record-breaking sunshine have provided unusual challenges for public health officials in Britain as they try to keep people focused on the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Kingdom has enjoyed the sunniest spring on record with 626 hours of sunshine during the season, more than 70 hours above the previous high in 1948, according to the national weather office. The clear blue skies have sent people flocking to parks and beaches with little regard for social distancing or face coverings. The rush to enjoy the outdoors has also been fuelled by the government’s decision to begin easing lockdown restrictions.
On Monday some primary school students returned to class for the first time in more than two months and limits on family gatherings were removed. Car dealerships also reopened and horse racing resumed at some tracks, although behind closed doors. Next week more non-essential shops can open and on June 17 the English Premier League season will resume, but also without spectators. Other countries across Europe have also begun to lift restrictions including the Netherlands, where bars and restaurants opened for the first time in three months on Monday.
Several British health experts worry that the government is moving too fast and that the public is growing uninterested in the outbreak, especially as the unseasonably warm weather continues. The United Kingdom has around 276,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 39,000 deaths, the highest in Europe. While both figures have been rising at a slower pace in recent days, experts worry a surge could take place if people start ignoring precautions.
“We are at a critical moment,” said a statement from the Association of Directors of Public Health on Monday. “We need to weigh up the balance of risks between easing restrictions … with the risk of causing a resurgence of infections. Directors of Public Health are increasingly concerned that the government is misjudging this balancing act and lifting too many restrictions, too quickly.” The association added that “the resolve on personal hygiene measures, and the need to immediately self-isolate, if symptomatic, is waning.”
Nancy Platts, the lead councillor in Brighton, said police officers struggled to cope with crowded beaches over the weekend despite calls for people to stay away. “Because so many people love coming to our city, this potentially puts people’s safety at risk and could undo all the work to prevent COVID-19 spreading which was achieved during lockdown,” she said.
Some members of the government’s scientific advisory panel have also questioned the decision to end the lockdown. "You know, we have still got 8,000 cases a day,” panel member Peter Horby of the University of Oxford told the BBC on the weekend. "We have been very successful in bringing it down, decreasing the numbers because of the social distancing.” He and others added that the R level, or rate of reproduction, is just below 1, which is the level at which the number of cases rises exponentially. “So, we have got very little headroom, actually,” he said.
Another worrying sign came from a recent YouGov poll that showed less than half of those surveyed trust the government for information about the virus. That’s down from around two-thirds in April.
On Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the moves to ease restrictions. He said the government has been shifting from national measures and toward more targeted efforts, which could include local lockdowns if cases of the virus flare up in one particular area. However, he also said it was important for the public to continue following precautions including physical distancing. “It’s really important we stick with it and keep our resolve as a nation,” he said during a press conference.
He also faced questions about the government’s new testing and tracing system launched last week, which is off to a shaky start. Under the program, a team of tracers is supposed to track down anyone who has come in contact with someone who has the new coronavirus. Those people will then be asked to self-isolate for 14 days or get tested for the virus, although the system is voluntary. So far the tracers have had little to do, but Mr. Hancock said that was because the number of COVID-19 cases has been falling. “We have more capacity than we need,” he said.
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