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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

With the world shutting down and spreading out, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has — in the course of four days — shown what an alternative approach to the coronavirus pandemic might look like, and why it's nearly impossible to execute.

The big picture: Johnson, flanked by his scientific advisers, laid out a strategy premised on some crucial concessions: tens of millions of Britons could be infected, many would die, and the danger would loom for many months — with fresh waves expected in the autumn and beyond.

  • Johnson eschewed lockdowns and closures like those being implemented around Europe. They'd either have to remain in place for several months, he said, or be loosened when the risk of infection was even higher. 
  • The economic and social costs would be tremendous. People would only willingly comply for so long.

Johnson — who has throughout the crisis abandoned populist bravado in favor of somber deference to expertise — charted a different course last Thursday:

  • The U.K. would try to shield those most at risk of death or serious illness while allowing others to go about the world more or less as normal — isolating themselves at home for a week only if they begin to experience symptoms.
  • Most would recover without the need for hospitalization, or even a test.
  • “By the time they come out of their cocooning,” chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said of at-risk individuals, “herd immunity has been achieved in the rest of the population.”
  • The policy response would be dialed up as needed to prevent hospitals from being overrun. Schools and pubs may well close, but not until it was both necessary and effective.

There were at least two major vulnerabilities to Johnson’s plan: 

  1. What if the initial spread grew out of control before policies could be ratcheted up?
  2. What if the more stringent measures taken elsewhere in Europe succeeded in slowing the spread, while the U.K. marched on toward tens of thousands of deaths?

Driving the news: It was the first scenario, along with public pressure, that forced Johnson’s hand today.

  • Four days after estimating the U.K. was a month behind Italy’s trajectory, Vallance said it was more like three week. The danger in London was growing faster still.
  • With the U.K. entering the “fast-growth part of the upward curve” ahead of schedule, Johnson asked the British people to work from home when possible and avoid nearly all “social contact” — no pub visits, soccer matches or dense crowds.
  • He asked high-risk individuals to isolate themselves for 12 weeks, beginning this weekend. School closures could be next.
"Clearly what we’re announcing today is a very significant change in the way we want people to live their lives, and I can’t remember anything like it in my lifetime. I don’t think there’s really been anything like it in peacetime. And we have to accept that it’s a very significant psychological, behavioral change that we’re asking you, we’re asking the public, the nation to do."
— Boris Johnson

The bottom line: The U.K.’s approach is starting to converge with those of similarly affected countries. It’s easier to join the herd than set off on your own.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Health

Food banks feel the strain without holiday volunteers

People wait in line at Food Bank Community Kitchen on Nov. 25 in New York City. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Food Bank For New York City

America's food banks are sounding the alarm during this unprecedented holiday season.

The big picture: Soup kitchens and charities, usually brimming with holiday volunteers, are getting far less help.

4 hours ago - Health

AstraZeneca CEO: "We need to do an additional study" on COVID vaccine

Photo: Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot said on Thursday the company is likely to start a new global trial to measure how effective its coronavirus vaccine is, Bloomberg reports.

Why it matters: Following Phase 3 trials, Oxford and AstraZeneca said their vaccine was 90% effective in people who got a half dose followed by a full dose, and 62% effective in people who got two full doses.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus cases rose 10% in the week before Thanksgiving.
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York coronavirus restrictions.
  3. World: Expert says COVID vaccine likely won't be available in Africa until Q2 of 2021 — Europeans extend lockdowns.
  4. Economy: The winners and losers of the COVID holiday season.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.