A woman looks at her phone as she wears a face mask in Leicester Square, in London. Picture: Alberto Pezzali/AP
A woman looks at her phone as she wears a face mask in Leicester Square, in London. Picture: Alberto Pezzali/AP

Critics slam UK PM Boris Johnson's 'gamble' of allowing coronavirus to spread

By Bill Smith Time of article published Mar 13, 2020

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London - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government defended its policies for fighting the spread of coronavirus against growing criticism on Friday of his refusal to close schools and cancel large events.

Johnson announced new measures on Thursday designed to move Britain from "containing" to "delaying" the spread of Covid-19.

The measures encourage social distancing and require people with symptoms of the virus to self-isolate, without any testing unless they develop severe complications requiring hospital treatment.

"This is a remarkable gamble by Mr Johnson, albeit one that the government insists is informed by science," The Times said in a commentary.

"Boris Johnson is gambling that allowing coronavirus to spread now will protect the economy in the long term. But Britain cannot shield itself from a global crisis," the newspaper said.

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the decision was "surprising" not to follow other nations in closing schools, cancelling all large events and imposing severe restrictions at borders.

"I think it is surprising and concerning that we're not doing any of it at all when we have just four weeks before we get to the stage that Italy is at," Hunt told broadcaster Channel 4.

Responding to Hunt's criticism, Downing Street said the government's policy was based on scientific advice and designed to "reduce the peak of the outbreak so the NHS [national health service] will be in stronger state as the weather improves."

Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance told BBC Radio 4 on Friday that he expects Covid-19 to become an "annual virus."

Vallance said the government wants to build a "herd immunity" to the virus in Britain while protecting the most vulnerable people.

"The best way to protect the public from the virus in the long term, the government has calculated, is for most of the population to get it, thereby giving it 'herd immunity' to further waves of the disease," The Times said.

Britain had confirmed about 800 Covid-19 infections through testing by Friday, including 11 deaths, but Vallance on Thursday estimated the total infected with the virus at between 5,000 and 10,000.

Amid the growing coronavirus pandemic, organizers of the London marathon on Friday postponed this year's race from April 26 until October 4.

The government also postponed local elections scheduled for May until next year.

Queen Elizabeth II, 93, postponed two royal visits "as a sensible precaution," Buckingham Palace said.

The queen's son and heir, 71-year-old Prince Charles, also postponed planned spring visits to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus and Jordan.

Vallance said previous epidemics suggested that taking extreme measures to curb the spread of similar viruses could allow them to "bounce back" later.

Because most people experience only mild symptoms, he said, the government wants to "build up some kind of herd immunity so more people are immune to this disease and we reduce the transmission."

Sweden also declined to use the tougher measures introduced by other countries and, as in Britain, several Swedish regions shifted to testing only high-risk groups.

The World Health Organization insisted on Friday that continued tracking, testing and isolating of new cases had proven highly effective in curbing the virus.


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