Boris Johnson Faces Calls for England Lockdown to Stem Virus Spread
Shops in Covent Garden in London, U.K. (Photographer: Betty Laura Zapata/Bloomberg)

Boris Johnson Faces Calls for England Lockdown to Stem Virus Spread

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to introduce another national lockdown as scientists warn measures to control the pandemic in England are failing, with opposition leader Keir Starmer joining calls for tougher action.

Infections are doubling every nine days and an estimated 960,000 people are carrying the virus in England on any one day, according to the latest findings from Imperial College London and Ipsos Mori, which is conducting one of the country’s largest studies of the disease. The reproduction rate of the virus -- a measure of how many people on average are infected by a single carrier -- has risen to 1.6, compared to 1.2 when the last figures were published Oct. 9.

The stark results add to the case for tighter social restrictions as deaths and cases climb once again. Elsewhere in Europe, governments are already taking action: France has announced a new monthlong nationwide lockdown and Germany has imposed its toughest rules since the spring.

So far, Johnson has resisted a second national lockdown, preferring a localized tiered approach where regions with the highest infection rates face tougher social distancing rules, including a ban on household mixing and closing pubs that don’t sell meals.

“My concern is the tier system is not doing enough to bring the infection rate down,” Starmer, who has called for a temporary “circuit-breaker” lockdown, said at a televised press conference Thursday. “That’s why I say again to the prime minister, we need to go further and faster to control the virus.”

Water Buckets

Members of the SAGE scientific committee advising the government are also calling for tougher action.

“It’s like living through a fire that is out of control with the government using buckets of water instead of fire engines to extinguish the flames,” Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London who sits on SAGE, said on Twitter.

Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease expert who sits on SAGE, said delaying a lockdown in March left the U.K. with one of the worst outcomes globally and warned the government against making the same mistake. “Delaying is itself a decision with consequences,” he said on Twitter.

But the government stood firm on Thursday and said it will continue with its localized strategy. Ministers are struggling to balance the demands for tougher measures against calls -- including from members of the ruling Conservative Party -- to prioritize the economy.

“It is right to try everything in our power to avoid a blanket national lockdown, it brings with it great damage to people’s lives and livelihoods,” Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told BBC Radio 4. “Each country has to take its own balanced judgment.”

Regional Approach

Nottinghamshire was the latest area to move into the government’s highest level of restrictions on Wednesday, joining the likes of Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire and Merseyside.

Coronavirus continues to spread across the U.K.: 310 new deaths were reported on Wednesday, following the 367 on Tuesday which was the highest daily total since May. The number of daily positive cases rose by 24,701, compared to 22,885 the day before.

Britain’s death toll from the second coronavirus wave could reach 85,000 in a “reasonable worst case scenario,” the Telegraph newspaper reported, citing SAGE documents.

The Imperial findings cohere with new modeling by SAGE, which suggests the U.K. is on course for a prolonged winter peak in the pandemic where there will be more deaths than last spring.

“The second wave of the epidemic in England has now reached a critical stage,” the scientists said in the report led by Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial. “Our results suggest strongly that one or more of the policies themselves, the timing of tier advancement, or levels of compliance, have not been sufficient to date to achieve control.”

The surge is coming as the government’s key test-and-trace program continues to miss key targets, hampering efforts to contain the disease. The Guardian newspaper reported government officials have asked local health chiefs to deploy new 30-minute saliva kits to accelerate mass screening.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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