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From shaking hands to a potential 'total lockdown': How the UK has rapidly shifted its position on Covid-19

After reports of the public flouting social distancing guidelines, the pressure is on Boris Johnson to take tougher action on the coronavirus.

Image: PA Images

AT A PRESS conference last night, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “very, very actively” thinking about what steps his government could take if people ignored the calls for social distancing amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Sky News is reporting this morning that the prime minister is attempting to rush through sweeping new laws as the UK faces the prospect of a “total lockdown” within the next 24 hours.

The UK’s rapid move to introduce measures to stop the spread of the virus in the past week contrasts sharply with its actions and advice in the weeks prior to this. 

Here’s what measures have now been introduced in the UK, and the path to getting there. 

‘I am shaking hands’

The position now in the UK is a far cry from the situation less than three weeks ago.

At a press conference in Downing Street, Prime Minister Johnson told reporters: “I am shaking hands.

“I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were coronavirus patients, and I was shaking hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know and I continue to shake hands.”

That same day, Johnson said the “vast majority of the people in this country should be going about our business as usual”.

Mass gatherings weren’t being urged against. That weekend, the Premier League had a full round of games. On Wednesday 11 March, around 3,000 Atletico Madrid fans travelled to Liverpool for a Champions League game. 

Another example is the Cheltenham Festival attended by hundreds of thousands of people across four days that week. 

The advice the British authorities were giving at this stage was that mass gathering may  be cancelled in future, but that wasn’t happening yet.

Johnson told reporters: “The scientific advice is this has little effect on the spread – but it does place a burden on other public services.”

On 12 March, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Irish people that schools, colleges and public institutions would shut, Johnson told the British public that there was no need to close schools now as the scientific advice “is that this could do more harm than good”.

Yesterday, the Sunday Times reported that on 12 March Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings changed his mind about the virus. Having previously advocated for a herd immunity strategy, he became the most outspoken advocate for a crackdown.

Carrying on as normal

As the British government chose not to implement the kind of lockdowns seen elsewhere in Europe or follow what Ireland was doing, business carried on as normal in the UK.

In London, over 2,000 people have been infected with the virus so far. Packed platforms and trains on the Tube are a norm for the city every day, but photos being circulated on social media in recent weeks – even up to today – show how social distancing is near impossible on these transport services.

Elsewhere in the UK, businesses and schools remained open and people largely went about their daily lives. A viral video – this time from Channel 4 – shows apathy towards the risk of the virus at a gym in Wolverhampton.

From last Monday 16 March, however, the UK government introduced an urgency to its messaging as it began to recommend measures such as those seen in other countries.

The schools

Last Wednesday, Johnson announced that schools across the UK would close from Friday evening. 

He said schools had been under “constant review” but now was the time to apply “further downward pressure” on the upward curve of the virus by closing schools.

However, there’s not a blanket closure of schools like there is here. Schools, nurseries and creches are still open today because the children of “key workers” are still going to school.

Health workers are obviously listed as key workers, so their children are still attending school.

Key public services are deemed to include those essential to the running of the justice system, religious staff, charities and workers delivering key frontline services, journalists and broadcasters providing public service broadcasting, as well as workers responsible for the management of the deceased.

Those involved in food production, processing, distribution, sale and delivery are also included, along with “administrative occupations essential to the effective delivery of the Covid-19 response” in local and national government.

Staff needed for “essential financial services provision”, such as bank workers, key telecommunications staff and postal services and delivery workers are also on the list.

At risk groups

From today, the NHS is beginning to send out letters to around 1.5 million people who are considered to be most at risk of the disease.

That letter is urging them to remain at home for 12 weeks.

At risk people include those who’ve received organ transplants, those with severe respiratory conditions or those with specific cancers such as blood or bone marrow.

The government said it would ensure those without families and friends to support them would continue to receive food and medicines, with the military helping to organise deliveries.

Yesterday, the British public were urged not to visit loved ones on Mother’s Day as the guidelines on social distancing have fully come into line with other countries.

coronavirus Shoppers queuing up to shop at a Costco in Croydon, south London yesterday Source: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images

On Saturday, NHS England national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said that this is “the time in your lifetime whereby your action will save somebody’s life”.

He said that people must do everything they can to socially distance themselves from others to give the NHS the “best possible chance”.

“It is absolutely crucial that everybody in the country follows the guidance that has been given,” Prof Powis said.

This is the time in your lifetime whereby your action will save somebody’s life. It is as simple and as stark as that.

Mass gatherings

Johnson also late last week ordered all pubs and restaurants across the country to close. 

Alongside this, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced that the government will pay the wages of employees unable to work due to the coronavirus pandemic, in a move aimed at protecting jobs.

It will cover 80% of salary for staff kept on by their employer, covering wages of up to £2,500 a month.

There are also range of measures to try support businesses in the crisis, as people are urged to work from home where possible.

However, alongside all these measures, Johnson is under pressure on the potential for a total lockdown as the death toll is now 281 and confirmed cases approaches 6,000.

covid-19-uk A quiet platform at King's Cross yesterday morning. Source: Erica Dezonne/PA Images

Reports of thousands of people flouting the social distancing guidelines emerged across the UK at the weekend, and the prime minister is facing calls to impose tougher controls.

A number of MPs – from all sides of the House of Commons – urged action.

Conservative MP – and former Northern Ireland Secretary – Julian Smith said: “Many people have recklessly ignored government advice this weekend.

“I will support any measure the Government needs to force people to follow the guidelines designed to protect NHS staff and UK citizens’ lives.”

Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan – who also works as an A&E doctor in London – said: “The Prime Minister has been blase about this from the start, waiting for others to make decisions so he doesn’t have to. It is costing lives.

Enough is enough. The NHS cannot cope and it won’t be long before doctors have to choose between who lives and who dies.

Workers on the London Underground have also expressed their anger at the lack of measures to protect them in their jobs.

Finn Brennan, district organiser for train drivers’ union Aslef, expressed alarm this morning at services which were extremely busy despite advice aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

He said: “The Government must act now to ensure only ESSENTIAL journeys are made.

I’m being sent pictures of crush loaded platforms at some Jubilee line platforms this morning. Drivers and other frontline staff are furious.

With Johnson’s key advisor Cummings now believed to favour lockdowns – potentially on the scale of Italy and France where everyone is told to stay in their homes – British media are reporting that such measures now appear likely to come into effect in the UK. 

The prime minister will brief the media again with an update of what action his government is taking this evening.

With reporting from PA

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Sean Murray

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