British Prime Minister Boris Johnson placed the country under effective house arrest Monday evening, the latest development in the country’s fight against coronavirus which has ranged from the simply sclerotic to the outright authoritarian.
Speaking to the nation on Monday evening, Boris Johnson ordered the public to stay at home except in a small number of circumstances, including infrequent trips to buy food, visits to the doctors, and essential work travel. The United Kingdom also banned public gatherings of more than two people, and empowered the police to enforce these rules.
The British government’s road towards what some critics have described as “putting the country under house arrest” has taken several twists and turns, with the Johnson administration and its expert advisers having taken a comparatively lax approach towards the coronavirus pandemic. The nature of the response started slow, now reaching apparent fever-pitch in shutting down the country in a bid to slow the spread of the virus.
UK Coronavirus Lockdown: ‘If You Don’t Follow the Rules, the Police Will Have the Powers to Enforce Them’ https://t.co/aoKxnPOkkI
— Breitbart London (@BreitbartLondon) March 23, 2020
As early as January 13th, Public Health England (PHE) confirmed it was “monitoring the situation with international partners, including the World Health Organization (WHO)” in Wuhan, China, where the virus originated — but said that the “risk to the UK population is very low and the risk to travellers to Wuhan is low”, simply advising people in the city to wash their hands and avoid contact with animals in public markets.
By January 20th, when the virus was spreading throughout China and cases confirmed in Japan, South Korea, and Thailand, Public Health England still insisted “the risk to the UK population is very low and the risk to travellers to Wuhan is low”, but that the situation was under “constant review”.
On January 22nd Public Health England said flights from Wuhan itself would be met by “Port Health team[s] who will… provide advice and support to those that feel unwell” but travel remained unrestricted, with no compulsory self-isolation or other quarantine measures in place — and the risk to the British public was still “assessed as low, based on the emerging evidence”, with the risk t “travellers to Wuhan” raised merely to “moderate”.
On January 28th Public Health England claimed that “the risk to the public remains low” but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) began “advising” people against travel the China’s Hubei province, where Wuhan is based, unless they deemed it “essential”.
People who had “returned from Wuhan in the last 14 days” were advised to self-isolate for 14 days — but no enforcement action was implemented.
By February 7th, long after the United States and several other countries had began restricting travel from China, Public Health England confirmed three infections had been detected in Britain and finally raised its assessment of risk to the British public to “moderate” — although they added that the “risk to individuals remains low”.
Travel to and from China remained unrestricted. Indeed, travel with newly-emerged epicentres such as South Korea, Iran, and Italy, also remained unrestricted, with flights from the stricken countries continuing to land in Britain down to the present day, with the government claiming there was “no evidence” travel bans would slow the spread of the virus in Britain.
It's time, to paraphrase @realDonaldTrump, for a complete shutdown of travel from China until our countries' representatives can figure out what the hell is going on. #coronavirus #wuhan https://t.co/ebC1T8U42S
— Jack Montgomery (@JackBMontgomery) January 28, 2020
As the virus began to take hold, domestic anti-coronavirus measures also remained lax, with members of the public merely advised to wash their hands with soap and water for twenty seconds at a time regularly and Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jenny Harries, filming a short conversation in which they discussed why banning mass gatherings such as football matches and concerts would make little impact on the spread of the disease.
In contrast to other governments, which were banning travel and enforcing social distancing and quarantines, the Johnson administration appeared to be pursuing a strategy of so-called “herd immunity” in which the coronavirus would pass through much of the population, until enough people had gained immunity that it could no longer propagate effectively.
Much was made of how “herd immunity” among younger, healthier people would shield the elderly and other vulnerable people from the virus — although no measures were actually put in place to ensure it would not infect them as well.
Then, on March 12th, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser received evidence from Imperial College London that their initial estimates were wrong, and that the “herd immunity” strategy would result in over a half a million deaths.
It had been indicated on several occasions that the best way to deal with the pandemic would be to “flatten the curve” — that is to say, not try to reduce the total of people infected, but to try to ensure they were infected over a long period of time rather than all at once, so the country National Health Service (NHS) and its Intensive Care Units (ICUs) would not find themselves overcapacity and unable to do anything for people who could otherwise have been saved.
The Imperial College data revealed the existing strategy was emphatically not flattening the curve, causing the government to shift, belatedly, towards containment.
— Paul Brand (@PaulBrandITV) March 23, 2020
Much of the government’s supposed containment measures remained merely advisory for quite some time. Schools were the first things to actually be closed, except to the children of key workers, followed by hospitality venues such as pubs, cafes, and restaurants, and entertainment and leisure venues such as cinemas, theatres, and gyms — all far later than in neighbouring countries.
The government also began advising older Britons to self-isolate, and younger Britons to practise social distancing, not gathering in large groups and remaining a reasonable distance apart.
While many presumably followed the advice, a significant minority did not, with pictures and videos showings parks packed and throngs of people attending public markets and high-capacity mosques — while shops heaved with panic-buyers stripping the shelves of toilet paper, meat, and imperishable goods cheek by jowl.
All of this, while countries such as Italy, Spain, and Germany were banning gatherings of more than a handful of people and ordering people to remain indoors except for essential business outside, finally proved too much for the government as the country continued to hurtle towards the same sort of exponential explosion in cases which had crippled hospitals in Lombardy.
Whether or not the unprecedented — although still relatively partial — lockdown measures have come too late to stop this remains to be seen.