Anger is growing at the number of people openly flouting government advice to socially distance, travel only when necessary, and stay at home if possible. Parks, beaches and streets are packed with people out enjoying the sunshine, as if it were a normal bank holiday weekend.
Crowds of youngsters were having a great time at my local skateboard park. Until yesterday, people were jammed together into pubs, bars and restaurants. Even the appeals of exhausted doctors and nurses for people to stay at home, to socially distance themselves, have gone unheeded – at least among a significant minority of the population.
Boris implores people to socially distance and wash their hands, but should people take his advice seriously? Incredibly, flights are still arriving from virus hotspots (albeit at a reduced rate) without check or restriction. The government is only now reconsidering its earlier decision (against WHO advice, and contrary to the experience of those countries that have managed to contain the virus) not to undertake mass testing. It has all but given up on contact tracing. Talk of not acting too early, of managing rather than supressing the epidemic, and developing herd immunity, is still fresh in the air; the strategy advised by its in-house experts was only modified when the team at by Imperial College forecast that the NHS would be quickly overwhelmed and a quarter of a million would die unnecessarily. To top it all, Boris insisted at his briefing yesterday that, social distancing aside, people should still ‘go out and enjoy themselves’. What message does this send?
Friday’s belated partial lockdown measures closing pubs, bars and restaurants, are welcome. But the government’s earlier inaction, combined with its continuing adherence to the strategy of nudge behavioural therapy, will exact a heavy toll in coming weeks.
People watching all this in France, Spain and Italy look on aghast. In France, where my mother-in-law now needs a permit to leave the house, and even the post offices have now closed, and where the health service is much better funded and equipped than in the UK, doctors are now having to prioritise emergency treatment, in effect denying it to the oldest and sickest. The hospitals are overwhelmed. Yet the pattern of new cases, and deaths, in the UK is exactly that of France, Italy and Spain at the same stage of the epidemic.
The Deputy Chief Medical Officer seemed relaxed at yesterday’s press conference. She argued the figures were not comparable. But the omens from London hospitals, where up to a third of staff are now self-isolating, and where the situation is said to be ‘deteriorating fast’, are not good, and this is just the beginning. Dr Patrick Berche, microbiologist and emeritus professor of medicine at Paris-Descartes, commented yesterday on the French News Channel that the situation in Britain exemplifies what can go wrong if you don’t lock down early enough.
President Macron has innumerable faults, but when he addressed the French nation last week and declared it to be ‘at war’, announced a fifteen-day lockdown including stringent restrictions on movement, when he told the French what they must do and what the penalties would be for those who flouted the regulations, nobody was in any doubt. His popularity is soaring.
Boris wants to be loved too. Well, in the past few days, there has been a distinct change in public mood. People can see where we are heading, and they now want clarity and decisive action. Time, surely, to step up and lock down.