The UK government is spending £30 billion to safeguard the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, but so far has ruled out aggressive measures to fight it. Britain moved decisively to cushion its economy from the ravages of the coronavirus, as it prepared to toughen a more cautious medical response that had come under fire, particularly after a health minister who had mingled at a reception with Prime Minister Boris Johnson fell ill from the contagion. Parliament did meet, nevertheless, to hear Mr. Johnson’s emergency plan after the World Health Organization declared the current situation as a pandemic.
The UK government said that its crisis committee would meet later and was expected to discuss ways to escalate social distancing strategies for tackling the virus, which could mean more people working from home, closing of school and restrictions on social gatherings. As the total number of confirmed cases in Britain rose to nearly 500, the country’s aggressive economic rescue plan had opposed its public-health response to the epidemic. The government had held off on social distancing measures, which the authorities in Italy, France, Germany, and other countries have adopted. But that soon change if the crisis committee decides, as expected, that the strategy is no longer good enough to contain the virus but instead to delay its spread.
Some experts are suggesting the government to shift courses and to be more transparent in discussing future steps. Britain has kept so far a tighter lid on outbreaks than its European neighbors but officials warned that infected numbers are likely to multiply in the coming days. “It’s better to be ahead of the curve,” said Devi Sridhar, director of the global health governance program at Edinburgh University. “We should be banning public gatherings. I don’t know why we haven’t taken that step.”
In presenting the budget, the chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, said the virus would have “a significant impact” on the economy, which is already projected to grow at its slowest rate since 2009. He said that this will be hard particularly for small businesses and part-time workers. “We are doing everything we can to keep this country and our people healthy and financially secure,” said Mr. Sunak, a 39-year-old former investment banker who became chancellor only a month ago, after Mr. Johnson forced out his predecessor, Sajid Javid. “I will do whatever it takes to get our nation through it.”
Stuart Neil, a professor of virology at King’s College London, said the government was having to walk “a very difficult tightrope” in trying to limit the spread of the virus without exhausting the public with heavy-handed restrictions too early. Closing soccer matches to fans, for example, would most likely only drive them to watch at pubs instead, where the virus could spread more easily than at open-air arenas, Professor Neil said. Shutting schools presents its own host of issues: Frontline health workers would suddenly have to worry about looking after their children, and people who insist on working anyway could end up leaving their children with grandparents, exposing vulnerable people to more contacts at the very moment they should be protected. “A lot of these measures tend to sound great on paper, but they don’t necessarily achieve what you expect them to achieve in practice,” Professor Neil said. “If you try to aggressively do some sort of massive lockdown like Italy, or some of the earlier stuff the Italians did, that can be counterproductive if people get bored and don’t adhere to it over time.”
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