Why is the UK Taking a Different Approach to Coronavirus?

Coronavirus Presents the Johnson Government with its First Big Test

Since 2016, Boris Johnson has been campaigning in favour of taking Britain out of the European Union. He has made his position on Brexit loud and clear and was one of the leading figures in parliament to oppose Theresa May’s “soft Brexit” approach. He became Prime Minister under the auspices of Brexit and won over the electorate with the promise of “getting Brexit done”. For all intents and purposes, Johnson was to be written down in the history books as the “Brexit Prime Minister”, the man who finally ended the UK’s almost four decade long marriage with the EU, thereby giving Britain its sovereignty back. While it is not clear if Johnson would only like to be remembered for delivering on Brexit, the current global pandemic of coronavirus has given his government a real make or break test and Johnson might just go down in history as the “coronavirus Prime Minister”, rather than the “Brexit Prime Minister”. It seems almost surreal to see something other than Brexit take over headlines in the British press, but as the coronavirus made its way to the country’s shores it soon replaced Brexit as the new talk of the town and the issues such as the Brexit negotiations, the country’s relationship the EU going forward and the EU Settlement Scheme seemed to have subsided from the public’s minds, at least for the time being. One thing that has made headlines across the world is the British government’s approach with the pandemic, and the fact that it is taking far less stringent measures than the rest of Europe. This might seem strange since Europe has recently replaced China as the global epicentre of the disease and many states, most notably the US, have started enforcing travel bans both to and from Europe. Italy, France, Spain, Germany and Austria have all imposed lockdowns in some way or another, as large gatherings have been banned in those countries and most schools and universities have been closed. However, by contrast, the UK has taken a much more relaxed approach as the government opted to encourage its citizens not to travel to highly infected states, and work from home if they can. As such, the government has left it to citizens and private businesses to decided what best measure to take. Naturally, the government has been criticised for its measures, with detractors saying it isn’t doing enough to protect its citizens. Though, the government’s previous plan of developing herd immunity among the public might have seemed risky, there was scientific evidence to back it up. Even though the government appeared adamant that it would carry out its plans, it did opt for new measures just days later amid a rise in coronavirus cases. 
Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is traditionally under immense pressure during the winter months, a time when the severe cold weather impacts the health of vulnerable members of society such as the elderly, or those with chronic disease. As the UK is now approaching spring, the pressure on the NHS was supposed to decrease, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed all that. Moreover, the pandemic is now looking likely to last months, and some estimates claim that it may extend into next winter. This would undoubtedly create chaos in the NHS, as it may not have sufficient care units to treat those who contract the virus. The government took this into account and has thus opted for a strategy of “herd immunity”, rather than the policy of containment, which is what the rest of the infected states have chosen. In layman’s terms, herd immunity is when enough members of society get the virus now, thereby gaining immunity so that when another outbreak happens less people would be susceptible to the virus and the number of those infected would be lower. Herd immunity can be done in a “controlled way” where enough people in society are vaccinated for a disease that even those in society who weren’t vaccinated would be protected from it. For a highly infectious disease like the measles, where every infected person can potentially infect 10 to 15 other people, 90 to 95 per cent of the population would need to be vaccinated to ensure herd immunity whereby even the other 5 to 10 per cent who weren’t vaccinated would be protected from the virus. Herd immunity can also happen in an uncontrolled way by which enough people in the population get infected while carrying out their daily lives, and then those who were infected would gain immunity, therefore ensuring that a second outbreak of the disease would be less severe. Currently, a person who contracts coronavirus infects, on average, two or three more people, as such for herd immunity to work, then 60 per cent of the population would have to contract the virus now. This is the reason why we’ve seen sensationalist headlines these past few days stating that the government wants “40 million people to be infected with the virus”.  While there is science to back the government’s previous strategy it relied heavily on too many assumptions for it to feasibly work.

A view from a nearly empty underground station at rush hour, as people refrain using public transportation as a precaution against coronavirus (COVID-19) in London, United Kingdom on March 17, 2020. (Getty)


The government assumed that those who are most vulnerable to the virus, i.e. the elderly or those with underlying health conditions, would largely avoid social contact during this period of time. As such, young and healthy individuals would make up the bulk of that 60 per cent needed to build herd immunity. However, the government assumed that most elderly individuals would just stay home, but that is a risky assumption to take especially considering that many elderly people in the UK live on their own and therefore need to go out for essential activities such as grocery shopping. Many elderly people are also lonely, so their trip to the supermarket, or to church or the local community centre is their only form of contact they have, so indirectly implying to them that they would need to stay home for the coming weeks was always going to be a difficult ask. Secondly, there are young people with chronic conditions who are susceptible to the virus, case in point those with asthma. It would be risky to assume all young people with such conditions could get time off work, especially if they work in a more labour intensive sector, which have jobs that ordinarily couldn’t be done at home. More critically, the government made the assumption that the virus could only be contracted once, so far not much is known about the virus and while most people who have recovered from the virus have not contracted it again, there still isn’t sufficient medical evidence to claim most individuals will only be infected once. 
After harsh criticism and a spike in the number of cases to over a thousand, the government decided to change its strategy. Even though it hasn’t adopted a strategy of containment like the rest of Europe, it still took harsher measures that seem to be working. The government has now adopted a strategy of “social distancing”, it has encouraged individuals to work from home if they can, and it also encouraged people to only go out of their homes when it is necessary. As such, the government is asking people to avoid going to places where crowds would be gathered such as pubs and cinemas. Additionally, it has discouraged all but essential travel to most countries in Europe. Finally, the government is encouraging the most vulnerable individuals, the elderly, those with underlying health conditions and pregnant women, to stay indoors. 
While the government did not force people to make these changes to their habits, the strategy seems to have worked thus far. Just one day after introducing the new measures, London’s normally busy underground was eerily deserted during rush hour and throughout the day. This decreased demand of the underground service has led to the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, to consider scrapping the rush hour service and replace it with weekend hours all throughout the week. Moreover, some gyms and learning centres have started temporarily closing down in compliance with the government’s recommendations, and even more incredible is that popular cinema outlets such as Odeon, Vue, Cineworld and Picturehouse have closed their theatres all across the country to help the government combat the outbreak. However, some other venues still haven’t shut down, for example most pubs and restaurants have remained open in fears that shutting down will cause them to lose their licenses. 
The government’s strategy is to take a balanced approach to the crisis, which will both save lives and keep the economy afloat. Nevertheless, it seems clear that businesses will suffer a huge blow during this crisis; the aviation industry in particular might crash during the coming months, as less people will be travelling. As a result, Virgin Group Chairman, Peter Norris, is going to ask the government to give airlines an emergency bailout of £7.5 billion to help them go through this crisis. 
In spite of these more rigorous measures, some are asking the government to do more, and in particular close down the schools since children can potentially spread the disease further. The government has said that it might look into that in the future, but for now it is weary of taking such an action for two reasons: first when children stay at home, parents will have to take care of them, thereby preventing them from going into work causing the economy to suffer as a result. Second, if parents are unable to take time off work to care for the children they will have to find other people to do that, and the most likely candidates will be grandparents, i.e. the people who would be most at risk from the disease. Only time will tell if the government will be forced to take harsher measures, but for now the balanced approach is its preferred approach.