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The thinking behind the British government’s new coronavirus approach

Their initial strategy would likely have resulted in 250,000 deaths as the infections would overwhelm intensive care

March 17, 2020

5:07 PM

17 March 2020

5:07 PM

As the British public adjust to new social distancing measures, a common question: how long will this last? At the press conference on Monday, Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty was eager to stress that the government measures to tackle the coronavirus resemble a ‘marathon not a sprint’. While the elderly have been told they could need to self-isolate at least for three months, increasingly the view in government is that the coronavirus response will go on much longer.

The UK government’s initial strategy was to mitigate the virus and allow for a controlled peak of the virus in the summer — around June — and in the build up cocoon vulnerable sections of society so as to reduce fatalities. On Monday, Johnson drastically increased social distancing measures affecting the whole country — from working from home to avoiding pubs and restaurants. A report from the Imperial College COVID-19 response team advising the government has revealed some of the thinking behind the approach.

They modeled different strategies for dealing with the coronavirus. The first — to do nothing — would result in 81 percent of the population becoming infected and 510,000 deaths by August. The second was mitigation — which is what the British government appears to have been practicing over the past week — by protecting vulnerable groups which would likely result in 250,000 deaths as the infections would overwhelm intensive care. Feeding into the revised effectiveness of the mitigation strategy is intelligence from Italy that shows a much higher percentage than anticipated who become infected require intensive care — with around 30 percent requiring ventilators or ECMO machines. This information has changed the calculations being made over the National Health Service’s ability to respond.


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The third response is that which is currently being practiced in China: suppression. This involves countries going into lockdown and extreme social distancing. If practiced, the report suggests it could limit fatalities to tens of thousands if not thousands — ‘suppression is the only viable strategy at the current time’. However, the big issue with suppression is there is no end date. Given that it doesn’t lead to herd immunity, it rests on a vaccination arriving sooner rather than later. The report estimates that this could take 18 months — as soon as you lift the measures there is an expectation that the virus will spread again.

This is why for all the talk of a few months of social distancing, UK Members of Parliament are now anticipating this could be a year-long project if not longer. However, even if the government concludes this is the only option, enforcing it will bring up fresh issues. Whether the public will go along with prolonged social distancing is unclear — it would likely have to be enforced by law. It could be that there are brief periods people are allowed to socialize before the country is effectively put back into lockdown. This afternoon British chancellor Rishi Sunak appeared at the daily press conference to announce an economic package of business loans worth over £330 billion ($398 billion). These include a new lending facility, agreed with the governor of the Bank of England, and an extension of the new business interruption loan scheme to provide borrowing of up to £5 million ($6m), rather than the initial promise of £1.2 million ($1.4m), as well as a three-month mortgage holiday

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.


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