Even as the World Health Organization has declared Europe as the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, the UK government does not seem serious in its thrust to contain the spread of the deadly virus despite the fact that its number of new cases and deaths continue to rise.
In Europe, Italy remains the country with the highest number of Covid 19 cases (it is 2nd globally, after China) and Spain comes in a far second. The UK’s figures are relatively low compared to its neighbors but this should not lull Britain’s political leaders into a dangerous sense of complacency. Nor should it hinder Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his cabinet members from enforcing the strongest public health measures to protect the British populace against coronavirus.
Several epidemiologists, infectious diseases specialists, political personalities and even a member of the Royal Family think Johnson’s response to the Covid 19 crisis that is gripping the world is much too slow and reckless, leaving the people vulnerable to the disease.
It could learn a lesson or two from Japan, who was 2nd in the highest number of cases but has now gone down to No. 17. When China informed the world about the coronavirus outbreak on Dec. 31, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set out to establish and implement public safety measures immediately.
By January, Abe had classified the virus from Wuhan, as yet unnamed, as a designated infectious disease. This tag allows the government to enforce compulsory hospitalization of confirmed patients using public funds, restrict them from going to work, and for doctors to report such patients to the government. In addition, the Japanese government imposed travel restrictions, snet out advisories for the public to avoid crowds and practice personal hygiene.
In February, even as Japan was confronted with the Diamond Princess cruise ship drama unfolding on its shores, Abe and his ministers acknowledged the gravity of the coronavirus situation and its damage to the public health and economy.
Among these measures are asking businesses to implement work from home or flexible schedules for their employees, and for people to self-isolate at home if they have mild symptoms of the disease. He also ordered the closure of schools amid protests from parents, but justified his moves, saying the urgency of the situation does not allow for prolonged consultations. As it turns out, Abe was proven right in his decisions.
Also in February, Japan released a $4.6 billion package for small business loans and added $15 billion in early March for the same purpose. The Bank of Japan handles these loans that have a -0.1% interest rate. It has also assured support for banks’ liquidity.
Japan also released a $4.2 billion coronavirus package to subsidize parents who had to stay home to take care of their kids, workers whose work were affected by the outbreak.
Meanwhile in the UK, the government has only recently moved from the “contain” to the “delay” phase of its four-point plan, with the government has only been advising people to self-isolate for seven days if symptoms are mild.
If sick, it advocates seeking information online via a government website and not through a phone call so as not to clog communication lines. It also advises against seeking face to face consultation with medical professionals.
A lockdown, like what China, Italy, Spain and now the Netherlands are doing, is not yet on its blueprint. There are plans to close schools, like what Belgium, France and most German states have done, and ban mass gatherings, similar to the moves of Switzerland, Denmark and Norway. But these will have to wait indefinitely while policies are being drafted. Pressure on Johnson to do so is rising, while Covid 19 has not yet reached its peak.
Fortunately, sensible football officials have cancelled all events of the Premier League, EFL and FA, and organisers of the London Marathon have postponed it to the last quarter of this year.
UK’s airports are still open to incoming passengers, with guidance for passengers to follow, in the slim hope that it will keep the virus out. It is also advising its own people against going abroad or joining cruises.
In its latest press release, the government announced that, in its drive to reach more people, it will launch adverts on the correct behaviour that will help to curb the spread of Covid 19. UK’s top physician Prof. Chris Whitty and an English actor will go on a media blitz on TV, radio, social media and other platforms for the public to see and hear their advice. Traditional media of print in newspapers and billboards, and digital screens will be employed as well.
But information dissemination may not be enough to limit or defer the coronavirus from spreading if crowd-gathering events and the country’s borders remain open.
Such laxity however does not apply where Brexit is concerned. PM Johnson is hell-bent on pushing through with the EU breakup in December. In the meantime, the more pressing matter of deterring the virus’ entry into the UK will have to take a back seat as far as this diehard Brexiteer is concerned.
On the economic front, the Cabinet seems to be taking a more aggressive approach. In his barely two months in office, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pledged £30 billion to avert an economic collapse, with £12 billion allocated for the coronavirus consequences. It will give relief to the overstretched budget of the National Health Service, provide support for affected workers and Covid 19-infected people, loans for small businesses suffering from the effects of the disease, and cash grants for small businesses.
Taking action alongside the Treasury, the Bank of England has cut the bank rate from 0.75% to 0.25% to bolster the economy during the coronavirus season. This is the lowest level yet in the bank’s history. Economists see the bank cutting interest rates even more in the coming weeks to 0.1%.
The Labour party isn’t optimistic about the long-term outcome of this fiscal stimulus. Its leader Jeremy Corbyn has criticized the new budget for ignoring environmental considerations and of providing money only when a serious threat is underway. A shadow chancellor has called the planned infrastructure projects as simply repairs to the damage done by the ruling party. Only time and the stock market will tell whether this splurge will boost or derail the UK’s economy.
If the UK government had a more consistent approach to the coronavirus challenge, the faith and support of its people will continue. But its aggressive and resolute approach to saving the economy is a stark contrast to its half-hearted attempts to protect the public health and safety. This could spell the Tories’ downfall in the next election. If Boris Johnson could only get his act together…but that is wishful thinking, as everyone waits for the next COBRA meeting.