Coronavirus: Is The U.K. Prepared?
Britain is on edge. Coronavirus’s steady creep is starting to look more like a surge: a thousand cases in South Korea, fifteen dead in Iran, over three hundred infected in Italy.
The UK’s health secretary confessed this week that he is “pretty worried”; a jarring understatement to Brits already battling the virus. That group is currently small—a dozen or so—but experts are clear: the worst is still to come.
‘Covid-19’, the disease’s official designation, has brought chaos to China. With almost 80,000 confirmed cases and 2,600 deaths, the virus’s country of origin remains the world’s worst hit.
That’ll bring little comfort to Britain’s medical authorities, who must face up to the threat of a widespread outbreak at home.
The U.K. is particularly “well prepared” to handle coronavirus cases, the government has reassured. In 2002, a global SARS epidemic found its way to British shores, followed seven year later by swine flu. A response to both, officials now have to hand an ‘Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy’.
But it’ll take more than a 70-page plan to put the public at ease. The disease is breaking out precisely where Brits might find themselves: Asian cruise ships, a ski lodge in France, the Spanish holiday island of Tenerife, and most recently in Italy’s picturesque north.
When those caught up return home, containment is key. Coronavirus is spread much like the common cold: coughs and sneezes. Individuals arriving from areas rife with the contagion should self-isolate, the government says.
If they’re experiencing symptoms of Covid-19—a high temperature or shortness of breath—or have flown in from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak, they may find themselves whisked off to specific quarantine centres. Under new emergency legislation, those at highest risk of spreading the illness can be forced into isolation.
If an individual tests positive, clinicians will then draw up a list of people they’ve been in contact with—an effort to stem further transmission.
Delaying the disease’s spread is the second priority. Foreign travel restrictions are in place for the worst-hit areas, with specialist teams screening airport arrivals. Targeted quarantine efforts should help slow the virus’s movement too.
In Italy, however, more drastic action has been taken. Entire towns in the country’s virus-hit Lombardy and Veneto regions have been cut off, with football matches and other public events ordered to proceed behind closed doors.
Such stringent measures are unlikely to be adopted in the U.K.—the government’s preparedness plan cites a “lack of scientific evidence” on the effectiveness of internal lockdowns, and warns that a ban on gatherings could adversely affect “public morale”.
With children among the most vulnerable, however, contingency planners might consider shutting schools should the crisis escalate. In Cheshire this week a private school took the decision to close after students and staff returned from Italy with flu-like symptoms.
The overarching objective of these measures is to hamper the disease’s spread before summer. With the arrival of warmer weather Covid-19 will be less easily transmitted. The NHS will also be better equipped to handle new cases having moved out of its busiest winter period.
Similarly, delaying the virus’s spread will give researchers time to develop a vaccine; the third priority. Scientists worldwide are in a race against time to create Covid-19-specific medication.
It usually takes two to five years to formulate a new vaccine—but with concerted global action, there are hopes of a much speedier breakthrough. Already American drugmakers have shipped new products for clinical trials—a remarkable feat given the recency of the outbreak.
Expectations should be measured, however. Expedited as it may be, the testing process is likely to take months, not weeks. A year-and-a-half is the World Health Organisation’s upper estimate before a vaccine is publicly available.
In the meantime, the British government urges caution and calm. Wise advice; but in a pandemic, that’s easier said than done.
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