By Benjamin Fox
(EurActiv) — Prime Minister Boris Johnson performed a dramatic U-turn on Monday (16 March) and put the UK on lockdown to curb the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, dropping his controversial ‘herd immunity’ approach and following the lead of continental Europe.
The UK was now approaching “the fast growth part of the upward curve” of coronavirus cases, the prime minister said in a dramatic public address, the first of what are planned to be daily press conferences on the coronavirus pandemic. Johnson told all Britons to work from home, avoid public gatherings and avoid all non-essential travel.
However, he again declined to close schools, although a large number of parents have already started to voluntarily keep their children at home.
Among the other measures, which he described as “very draconian”, Johnson warned that people should avoid “pubs, clubs, theatres and other social venues”, and that households with Coronavirus symptoms should self-impose 14-day isolation.
But he devoted most of his remarks to protecting the elderly from contracting the virus, saying that people with the most serious health conditions must be “largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks”.
The number of confirmed cases in the UK hit 1,543 on Monday, with a death toll of 55, most of them over 65 years old.
UK officials believe that the island is around three weeks behind Italy, the European country worst affected by the virus thus far.
“We are in a war against an invisible killer,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, adding that emergency legislation to tackle the virus would be introduced to Parliament on Thursday. Those measures are likely to include extra funding and support for the National Health Service, including turning hotels into makeshift hospitals.
“It looks like we’re on the fast upswing or just about to get there and that’s the reason to want to get in quite quickly with these measures,” said Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.
Last week, the UK government was widely criticised for seemingly encouraging “herd immunity”, in which most of the population would contract the virus, and for not conducting enough testing on potential cases.
Meanwhile, most European governments last week imposed bans on public gatherings, closed schools and forbade their citizens to stay in their homes and avoid non-essential travel.
“You cannot fight the fire blindfolded. And we cannot stop this pandemic if we don’t know who is infected. We have a simple message for all countries – test, test, test,” the head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said at a press conference earlier on Monday.
A leaked report by Public Health England suggests that up to 7.9 million Britons could be infected between now and spring 2021, and the government’s strategy until now appeared to be aimed at broadening the peak of cases to give the NHS sufficient chance to cope.
Unsurprisingly, London is the epicentre of Coronavirus cases in the UK and is several weeks ahead of other parts of the country, the government says.