Boris Johnson on Monday stepped up Britain’s response to coronavirus, declaring that new curbs on social contact and unnecessary travel would save lives. “I don’t think there has been anything like it in peacetime,” he said.
The prime minister’s move will help to allay some of the criticism of his response to the crisis, although scientific and political concerns about the allegedly slow and underpowered UK reaction to coronavirus are likely to persist.
Only four days ago, Mr Johnson was criticised by some for failing to match the draconian measures introduced in several EU countries, such as school closures, travel bans and enforced shutdowns of bars and restaurants.
Last Thursday, Mr Johnson and his medical team recommended only that people with a new cough or a fever should stay at home for seven days, that the elderly should avoid cruise ships, and that there should be a ban on overseas school trips.
Testing of people self-isolating with suspected coronavirus was halted, in defiance of the advice by the World Health Organization.
But, on Monday, Mr Johnson was much more robust, recommending that households with a suspected case of coronavirus should quarantine for 14 days, while those with serious health conditions would begin 12 weeks of isolation next weekend.
People were advised against visiting pubs, restaurants and theatres — although these establishments were not forced to close — and those aged over 70 and pregnant women were told to be especially vigilant. Working from home should become the norm, Mr Johnson said.
What explained the shift in the prime minister’s strategy? He said the new “draconian measures” were in response to the discovery that in some parts of the country “the peak of the epidemic is coming faster” than others. London was already in the “fast growth” part.
Last Thursday, Mr Johnson’s team — notably Chris Whitty, chief medical officer, and Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser — said Britain was “four weeks behind Italy” in the development of the epidemic.
On Monday, the team declared that the UK was only three weeks behind Italy because the disease was developing more quickly than expected.
That means that Londoners in particular were not taking drastic measures over the past few days that might have slowed the spread of the disease, but scientists said that the facts on the ground were altering fast.
Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, whose disease-modelling group has strongly influenced the government’s Covid-19 strategy, said that two things had led to a big change since last week.
“Firstly, the NHS has been assessing its capabilities, and secondly we have had bad news from Italy and early experience in UK hospitals that the intensive care requirements will be nearly twice what we had anticipated,” he added.
The latest evidence suggested that 30 per cent of patients hospitalised with coronavirus would need to be looked after in an intensive care unit, said Professor Ferguson. Previous estimates, based on experience with viral pneumonia, were too low, he added.
Although Labour is publicly declining to criticise Mr Johnson, who is careful to stress that he is being guided by scientific advice, privately the opposition party is asking why routine testing of suspected cases of coronavirus has stopped, in spite of the World Health Organization saying it is vital.
Meanwhile, the prime minister declined to say at his press conference why his plea to British manufacturers on Monday night to start making ventilators to help hospitals treat a surge of very sick people was not made weeks ago.
Some Conservative MPs had become worried about why the government’s Covid-19 strategy seemed to concede that the disease would spread widely in the population — a risky political stance, even if the science was right.
“It may be the right strategy, but what would happen in the unlikely event that a vaccine was developed later in the year?” asked one senior Tory MP. “How would you explain the ‘excess deaths’ caused by us failing to take tougher action earlier? That would be politically devastating.”
But other Tory MPs were convinced that the prime minister, often criticised for ignoring experts on Brexit, was being guided by Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick.
These MPs were relieved that an increasingly chaotic government communications strategy — featuring anonymous media briefings about isolating the elderly and an alleged policy of seeking “herd immunity” for the population — was being replaced by a daily press conference led by a senior minister.
“The daily press briefing was much needed and should help,” said one senior Conservative MP after Mr Johnson’s latest briefing in the state dining room of Number 10, flanked by Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick.
Downing Street also paved the way for a possible rapprochement with the media after months of strained relations.
Lee Cain, Number 10’s director of communications, told political correspondents on Monday that there would be a reset in relations for the “pretty unprecedented times”.
Mr Cain, one of the prime minister’s closest advisers, acknowledged that there had been “a few turbulent periods” in which Downing Street and the media had clashed, but he said that new circumstances meant a fresh start.
“The slate is wiped clean, it doesn’t matter what political spectrum any of us are on or who you write or work for whatever, we will deal with everybody the same with an entirely transparent position,” he added.