Virus may last a year and put 8m in hospital

Flattening the curve: Four approaches and four computer-modelled results represented over time.

Are you a delayer or a container? What’s your pandemic strategy? As Europe launches a wartime clampdown, the UK’s more relaxed coronavirus strategy is under fire from some scientists.

All the bars in France have closed. In Spain, police drones are telling people to stay indoors. In Austria, gatherings of more than five people have been banned.

Covid-19 is transforming Europe. Schools are closing their gates and borders are being patrolled.

But in the UK, the government is simply telling people with a cough or fever to stay at home. Otherwise, carry on as normal – at least for now.

As Robert Colvile, the director of the Centre for Policy Studies, wrote yesterday: “There is a new dividing line in politics. Instead of leave versus remain, we have contain versus delay: should we seek to halt, or at least slow, the virus via an Asian-style blitzkrieg, or stick to a war of attrition, as the UK government prefers, with the aim of ensuring the NHS is never completely overwhelmed?”

With over 1,000 reported cases and dozens of deaths inside the UK, the “delay” strategy is proving controversial.

A number of scientists have written a letter expressing their concern, calling on the government to take “more restrictive measures [...] as is already happening in other countries across the world”.

Critics of the government’s policy argue that the UK should look towards the success of countries like China and South Korea in containing the virus. In those places, widespread testing and strict quarantines were enforced.

But for the UK government, the priority is ensuring that the NHS does not get overwhelmed. The virus is already here and it is spreading. It says we must avoid a situation where hospital beds run out and people needing treatment for other urgent ailments are unable to get help.

Additionally, if people are made to isolate for months, they might risk experiencing “behavioural fatigue”.

Instead of forcing everyone into self-isolation now, the UK government wants to wait until it is absolutely necessary.

At its current rate, should the virus follow a similar pattern to outbreaks in countries like Italy, infections will reach their peak in a couple of months.

By then, the country might have developed “herd immunity”. If enough people contract the virus now, the population will be more resilient the next time Covid-19 comes around. But of course, unmitigated, this could still lead to the deaths of many tens of thousands of people in the short term, if not more.

Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, fiercely denied that “herd immunity” was ever part of the government’s strategy. Instead, he said: “To protect life, we must protect the vulnerable, and protect the NHS and flatten the curve.”

So, should you be a delayer or a container?

Isolation nation

Delay is a more nuanced, but clever way of ensuring our long-term safety. Assuming we only have one chance at quarantining the entire country, then we should wait until it is absolutely necessary. This is a new virus that risks coming back every winter. Until a vaccine is developed, we should attempt to keep the spread of the virus as slow and as steady as possible so as to not overwhelm our hospitals.

Contain. There is a reason that other countries are prioritising keeping their population indoors. This allows them to protect vulnerable people now – not at some future point in time. This is important because we cannot predict how the virus will behave. It is possible that, unconfined, the virus will very quickly spread to a level that could overwhelm the NHS.

You Decide

  1. Does news about other countries shutting down borders and bars make you feel more or less worried about the situation in the UK?
  2. What do you think of the idea that people self-isolating will experience “behavioural fatigue” if the pandemic lasts too long?

Activities

  1. In pairs, write the script for a short radio announcement that summarises the current government advice in a fun and catchy way.
  2. Research how the authorities in Hong Kong and South Korea managed to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Write a list of bullet points outlining what the UK could learn from their responses.

Some People Say...

“If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection. And the problem in society we have at the moment is everyone is afraid of making a mistake.”

Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organisation’s Health Emergencies Programme

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
As of Sunday afternoon, the UK government’s official advice is to stay at home for seven days if you have a fever or a cough. There is currently no treatment for coronavirus. The UK strategy is split into four phases: contain, delay, research, and mitigate. We are currently in the ‘delay’ phase, defined as: “Slow the spread in this country, if it does take hold, lowering the peak impact and pushing it away from the winter season.”
What do we not know?
We do not know if there will be a second wave of Covid-19. We do not know whether it will be a seasonal disease. We can’t be sure that developing herd immunity is something that can be achieved deliberately by a government without a vaccine or without a huge loss of life. We do not know whether once countries come out of lockdown, there will be another outbreak.

Word Watch

Covid-19
The disease caused by the coronavirus which has spread to most countries around the world and killed thousands.
Delay
A plan to slow the spread of the coronavirus rather than containing it by enforcing strict quarantines.
Blitzkrieg
German word meaning an intense military campaign intended to bring about a swift victory.
Quarantines
Restrictions on the movement of people and goods intended to prevent the spread of disease.
Ailments
Diseases, illnesses.
Behavioural fatigue
Another controversial assumption included in the government’s delay strategy, which claims that people will get bored of staying indoors and not seeing their friends, so it shouldn’t be implemented too early.
Herd immunity
Usually used to describe the effectiveness of vaccination, the term refers to having enough people in a given community who have recovered from a viral infection and, therefore, cannot pass it on. This slows the spread of a disease and prevents a population from future epidemics.
Unmitigated
Without policies to combat, control or contain.
Flatten the curve
Or, as Boris Johnson described it, “squashing the sombrero”. This is the idea that the role of a government during a pandemic is to stop numbers of cases reaching a critical point where health services are overwhelmed.

Subjects

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