United Kingdom: Late to the lockdown
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has done a complete U-turn, said Tim Shipman and Caroline Wheeler in the Sunday Times. Until mid-March, his government was downplaying the severity of the coronavirus threat, relying on a tactic of isolating the old and encouraging the young to keep living their lives as usual. That would allow the population to build up “herd immunity,” the thinking went, and prevent a second wave of infections later this year. Tens of thousands would likely die, but massive, repeated disruptions of society would be averted. Then the government was handed an Imperial College London report that predicted this approach would actually kill 250,000 Britons in the first wave and utterly overwhelm the National Health Service. Grasping the scale of the impending tragedy, Johnson “ordered an expansion of the state not seen since the Second World War.” He imposed a stay-at-home order for all but essential workers, closed schools, pubs, and restaurants, and allowed people out only to buy food and medicine or to exercise. A $400 billion loan package will help businesses, while the government will pay furloughed workers up to $2,900 a month. Cabinet ministers describe Johnson as competent and decisive, although in public appearances he looks “shell-shocked.”
It’s not enough, said Marc Sidwell in The Daily Telegraph. We need to “test, test, test,” and then trace “contacts and track infection with every technological trick we can invent.” Once the infected or possibly infected have been identified, they must be isolated. This is how Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea have succeeded in keeping their caseloads manageable. But right now we’re testing only a few thousand people a day, “nowhere near enough to chase the virus to earth.” More than 420 people have already died of Covid-19, and that toll will soar in the coming weeks.
We’ve survived health scares like this before, said Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail. Remember mad cow disease in the 1990s, predicted to kill half a million? Fewer than 200 Britons died of the brain disorder. But Johnson’s “stumbling retreat from reason into fear” is now killing our economy. Our democracy will be next, as he wields “all the crudest weapons of despotism: the curfew, the presumption of guilt, and the power of arbitrary arrest.”
We are certainly overreacting in one way, said Liam Doyle in the Daily Express. “Coronavirus panic buying has set in,” with shoppers stripping supermarkets bare. Doctors and nurses coming off long shifts have tweeted that they can’t find anything to eat. The food situation is getting dire, said Fiona Harvey in The Guardian. Farmers “are already struggling after months of severe floods,” and they’re desperately short of seasonal labor because of Brexit—most crop pickers come from European Union countries—and coronavirus travel restrictions. The Country Land and Business Association wants 80,000 unemployed Britons to be sent into the fields. The worst part? The average age of farmers in the U.K. is 59, putting many at higher risk of developing severe symptoms. What happens if they start to die? ■