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'A big gamble': U.K. government faces criticism over its coronavirus plan

The British government is facing growing criticism from scientists and even a former Conservative health secretary over its plan to try to delay the spread of the coronavirus as its number of confirmed cases totals nearly 800.

Unlike several other European countries, the U.K. has not closed schools or banned large gatherings

Members of the public enter Oxford Circus tube station on Friday in London, England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the U.K. is entering the 'delay' phase of emergency planning for the COVID-19 crisis. Schools will not be closed at this time although they have been asked to cancel school trips abroad. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The British government is facing growing criticism from scientists and even a former Conservative health secretary over its plan to try to delay the spread of the coronavirus as its number of confirmed cases totals nearly 800.

While several other European countries adopt restrictive measures such as cancelling school and banning large gatherings, the United Kingdom remains an outlier and its public health officials insist those actions are premature. 

"The timing is critical," said Patrick Vallance, the U.K.'s chief scientific adviser. 

"It's a package of things that need to happen at the right time."

On March 12, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared the coronavirus "the worst public health crisis for a generation," the government announced that it was moving into the "delay" phase of its plan.

It includes asking people who exhibit symptoms such as a fever or persistent cough to self-isolate, but  it didn't move to close schools or ban large gatherings as is happening in Ireland or France. 

As part of the U.K. plan, schools are being asked to cancel international trips, and people with persistent coughs and high fevers are being asked to stay home. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Vallance argued against implementing those measures now because the government doesn't anticipate the spread of the virus to peak here until the end of May.

However, some infectious disease experts question the logic of the U.K. government's plan. 

"I personally feel that it is under-measured," said Dr.  Bharat Pankhania, head of public health medicine at the University of Exeter. 

Pankhania, who has worked for more than 20 years as a consultant in infectious disease, believes the government should be banning large events and shutting down pubs now before more of the population becomes infected. 

He uses an analogy of a parent whose son has started to experiment with drugs. 

"If I say: 'If he switches onto heroin, I will step in [at] that time,' but by that time he is hooked on heroin ... it is very difficult to pull him off," Pankhania said.

Dr. Bharat Pankhania believes a significant proportion of the U.K. population is underestimating the risk of coronavirus and wants to see the government offer stronger and stricter advice. (University of Exeter)

Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt, who served as health secretary for six years, told the BBC he is concerned by the government`s plan, considering that the spread in the U.K. is estimated to be about a month behind Italy, where there have been more than 1,000 deaths and the country is under complete lockdown.

"You would have thought that every single thing we do in that four weeks would be designed to slow the spread of people catching the virus," he told BBC.

Vallance has defended the government's plan, saying its aim is to "delay and reduce the peak." The hope is that by pushing it back, hospitals will have more time to prepare and won't be as busy with patients suffering complications from the seasonal flu.

On the issue of school closures, he said that in order for that to be truly effective, they would have to be shut down between three and four months, which he believes is impractical. 

Moreover, he said parents in need of child care could be left turning to grandparents who are particularly at risk of developing serious respiratory issues as a result of the virus. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, centre; Chris Whitty, left, chief medical officer for England; and Patrick Vallance, the U.K. government's chief scientific adviser, hold a news conference addressing the government's response to the coronavirus outbreak on Thursday in London. (Simon Dawson/Getty Images)

Vallance said it's impossible to prevent everybody from contracting the coronavirus, adding that from a public health standpoint, it is not something that is desirable either. 

In order to decrease the virulence of it in the future, he said a significant number of people need to be exposed to the virus now so they can develop immunity.

Francois Balloux, a professor of computational systems biology at University College London, analyzes the patterns of outbreaks and said in the scientific community there is a big disagreement about whether restrictions around social distancing would be more effective if they are in place now or later. 

Francois Balloux, a professor a University College London, described the U.K.'s coroanvirus approach as 'wait and see.' (Briar Stewart/CBC)

He described the U.K.'s approach as laid-back, and believes there are also strong economic considerations being made. 

In London, a city that attracts roughly 30 million visitors a year, museums and theatres are still operating. 

"I think there is a real hope by the government to do things softer, in a subtle way, to try to keep transmission low," he said. 

 "Obviously that is a big gamble."

About the Author

Briar Stewart is a senior reporter with CBC News. For more than a decade, she has been covering stories for television, radio and online. She is based in Vancouver and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart

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