Last week, officials in the United Kingdom were privately roasting the Trump administration for its response to the coronavirus: “Our COVID-19 counter-disinformation unit would need twice the manpower if we included him in our monitoring,” one staffer told BuzzFeed News, referring to a task force designed to stop false reports from circulating during the crisis. Though President Trump’s plan to halt spread of the virus could be critiqued from any number of angles, public-health experts were also questioning the U.K.’s plan, which “focuses on slowing but not necessarily stopping epidemic spread — reducing peak healthcare demand while protecting those most at risk of severe disease from infection,” according to a report by the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, which is advising the U.K. government.
As the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, puts it, the country is planning to suppress the coronavirus, “but not get rid of it completely,” so that it would spread just among younger, safer age groups — and not the elderly or immunocompromised. But in the Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team’s report released on Monday, the advisers realized the profound error in their plan. “Our most significant conclusion is that mitigation is unlikely to be feasible without emergency surge capacity limits of the UK and US healthcare systems being exceeded many times over,” the researchers wrote, estimating that the systems could be overrun by as much as eight times their capacity.
In that scenario, the result in the U.K. would be around 250,000 deaths. Despite a plan of attack almost exactly inverse to that of every other country effectively responding to the crisis, the conclusion that the U.K. had bungled its response — and lost critical weeks in staving off the spread — had “only been reached in the last few days.”
“We were expecting herd immunity to build,” Imperial epidemiologist Azra Ghani said in a press conference on Monday night. “We now realize it’s not possible to cope with that.” Now, the researchers “conclude that epidemic suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time.” To reduce the spread of the virus, the researchers recommend a plan resembling those of most other countries: “A combination of case isolation, social distancing of the entire population and either household quarantine or school and university closure are required.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson accepted the above recommendations. He urged the country to end “non-essential contact” by staying away from pubs and movie theaters; he encouraged families to self-quarantine for 14 days if any member shows symptoms; and he discouraged “non-essential travel.” Though the announcement was a departure from the government’s strategy to date, it still fell short of the policies of many American states and other countries battling the virus, where schools and restaurants have been shut down.
With 1,543 confirmed cases and 53 deaths in the U.K. as of Monday, it’s a grim better-late-than-never scenario at 10 Downing. But it’s still unclear why Johnson signed off on the iconoclastic strategy. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of condemnation by the international health community: Health experts wrote multiple letters to the government asking for transparency on the decision and urging Johnson to enact a more conventional plan. “We have a small window of opportunity to protect our nation, to learn about this new emerging virus and to deal with this unprecedented threat to global health,” wrote Professor Arne Akbar, president of the British Society for Immunology. That window is now just barely propped open.
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