COVID19: UK braces for six-month haul

The Boris Johnson government has been criticised by opponents for a slow response to the medical challenge

COVID19: UK braces for six-month haul
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Ashis Ray

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, has recovered after being afflicted by the Coronavirus, now going by the acronym of COVID-19. But at the time of writing, the country’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was still hors de combat, though continuing to steer the ship from self-isolation in his flat at 10 Downing Street. His cabinet colleague, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, England’s chief medical officer, Professor Christopher Whitty, and Johnson’s primary strategist, Dominic Cummings, were all indisposed, suspected of having caught the deadly virus, though displaying mild symptoms.

Such a widespread succumbing to the infection by key members of the British task force waging war against the monumental menace suggested they had not followed the very instructions issued to citizens and residents; indeed disregarded Johnson’s own warning that no one was “invincible”. It was, admittedly, commendable that Hancock rolled up sleeves to lend a helping hand to workers at a warehouse lifting boxes of supplies to the National Health Service. But was this wise?

The Johnson government has been criticised by opponents for a slow response to the medical challenge. It has certainly been a calibrated reaction. The United Kingdom government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, sounded cautiously optimistic when he told a press conference at 10 Downing Street – a daily affair for several weeks now – the lockdown measures enforced by Johnson are “making a difference”. This would he said “break and slow transmission of the virus”. He claimed the number of people getting infected per day had flattened, although there was no alteration to the forewarning that the peak of the outbreak is yet to erupt.

While all shops, other than food stores and pharmacies, are closed and people are generally following orders to work from home, other than where it is essential to do otherwise, public transport has continued to operate. But as Vallance cited, there was a sharp decline in commuters, indicating the public had displayed discipline, which of course one expects from educated indigenous Britons, who are characteristically restrained in their behaviour.

However, prior to Vallance’s remarks, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jennifer Harries, cautioned that while the containment steps would be reviewed after Easter, they may be in place much longer. She maintained that even if the UK was successful in suppressing the rising spectre of new cases, it could not “suddenly revert to our normal way of living”. She added: “If we stop then all of our efforts will be wasted and we could potentially see a second peak.” She spoke of restrictions in some form remaining for up to six months.

Johnson’s promise of 25,000 tests a day has, though, may not be fulfilled until the end of April. Indeed, minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove’s assertion that 10,000 tests a day were being performed was correctly questioned by critics. This target has since been attained. Testing has in fact been stepped up on doctors and nurses treating patients and therefore dangerously exposed to the virus.

Because of the sheer volume of international traffic in and out of Britain, especially when it comes to London, this island nation has been as vulnerable as Italy, Spain and France to the disease. Its percentage of deaths compared to the number of confirmed cases – at around 6%-7% - was level pegging with France, but serious cases was only 0.8% of active cases, which was incalculably below the figure in France.

Meanwhile, according to the UK’s foreign office, foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, and Indian external affairs minister, S Jaishankar, held a “private conversation” on the phone on 27 March. The former tweeted the next day: “Yesterday, Indian Foreign Minister @DrSJaishankar & I discussed need for coordinated international action to tackle #COVID19. We will work together to bring our people back home, and agreed the importance of keeping air routes home open.”

The British government has appointed Corporate Travel Management, a UK-based firm, to organise charter flights to repatriate British nationals stranded in India back to Britain. Once the flights are confirmed, those interested in availing of them will have to pay for their passage. Many such Britons are of Indian origin who were holidaying when transfixed by the cancellation in flights. They seem panic-stricken, untrusting of India, judging from their interviews to BBC. Indeed, a young white woman compared her parents’ experience at an Indian hospital to prison conditions. An official stated British diplomatic missions in India have “supported thousands of British nationals in India in person, over the phone, on social media and over email”.

What the Indian government is doing to get its act together was unclear. On 29 March, a WhatsApp message was forwarded by someone saying Air India will be scheduling flights to evacuate Indians from London in early April. The Indian High Commission in the British capital reacted on Twitter: “Such a misleading message is being spread. Please do not share it with others. At this difficult time please refrain from spreading rumours. Stay connected with us for updates.”

The Indians’ plight appear to be not so much creature comforts or insecurity from the COVID19 hazard, but dwindling funds and expiry of visas. The high commission tweeted: “Indian citizens, including students, stranded in the UK due to non-availability of flights or closure of hostels who have nowhere to stay may contact YMCA for accommodation…” An Indian students’ body claimed food was available from selected Indian grocery outlets. And the British home office extended terminating visas to 31 May.

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