Mar 16, 2020 - World

U.K. hedges its massive coronavirus gamble

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.

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