Johnson needs to announce a coronavirus lockdown if Wales is to avoid the worst

Boris Johnson. Picture by Cancillería Argentina (CC BY 2.0).

Ifan Morgan Jones

Governments ultimately have three choices when it comes to responding to the coronavirus.

The first is to let the virus blow through and allow the health service to be completely overrun, with a much higher rate of death (estimated at around 510,000 lives in the UK).

The second is a legally enforceable lockdown that forces everyone to stay in their homes most of the day, under penalty of prosecution, as we currently see in France, Italy, Spain and elsewhere.

This may need to continue until a vaccine is available – which could take 18 months or more – otherwise once the lockdown is lifted the virus could bounce back quickly.

Such a lockdown until a vaccine appears would slow the spread of the virus to the point where fewer people die due to the inability of the health service to care for them. But it would come with a big economic cost as the economy slows almost to a standstill for over a year.

The third is to mitigate the spread of the virus, with some efforts to prevent its spread but no strict lockdown. In theory, the virus still overruns the health service and the death rate is still very high, but not to the same extent as doing nothing.

 

Trajectory

It may seem distasteful to discuss saving lives as a political choice, but it is, after all, a judgement every government has to make every year when deciding how much money to give the NHS.

And deciding how to balance likely infection rates against social and economic factors is ultimately a political decision, however, much politicians would like to hide behind the mantra that they’re ‘just following the advice of health experts’ or ‘being guided by the science’.

And it seems to me that the UK, like the USA, has so far decided to mitigate rather than suppress the virus – to clamp down less than some other countries, and risk possibly paying a higher price in terms of the number of deaths.

The UK is on the same trajectory as Italy but some 12 days behind in terms of the number of cases of coronavirus so far.

But Italy announced their own lockdown in the worst affected area 12 days ago, on 8 March, shutting down businesses and banning public gatherings.

Despite this, if we are to believe the UK Government they have no plans for such a lockdown – even a partial lockdown in the worst affected area which is London.

As the BBC’s well-briefed Laura Kuenssberg put it: “The government is not, as things stand, about to shift to a much more draconian approach that other countries have pursued.”

Instead, the UK government’s strategy is to mitigate – which amounts to closing schools and asking nicely that people work at home when possible and don’t visit bars, theatres and other social areas.

They have also so far held back from the kind of direct financial assistance that would make the closing business a viable choice for hundreds of thousands of workers.

Choice

Unsurprisingly, given that you can still roam freely without any legal consequences, and given that many face a choice between opening their businesses and going to work or poverty, this hasn’t worked.

There are no shortage of stories of busy bars and cafes, and caravan parks full of tourists in west Wales.

According to the latest YouGov polling, 41% of people are going about their lives as normal. And 9% said they wouldn’t self-isolate even if they or a member of their household had symptoms of coronavirus.

It’s pretty clear therefore that asking people to stay indoors just isn’t an effective form of mitigation. And as half the population realises the other half isn’t taking it seriously, they are less likely to sacrifice too.

Mitigation alone isn’t working, as Boris Johnson seemed to admit in yesterday’s press conference.

It is, of course, probably now too late to avoid a similar scenario to Italy. But even if the UK Government is able to stomach conditions in the UK to deteriorate to the point where the army needs to be called in to move the bodies, to stop things getting worse still they need to at least match Italy and implement legally enforceable lockdown now.

The horse may well have bolted but they can still catch up with it, lasso it and slow it down if they’re quick.

At the very least, it would be prudent to introduce more severe restrictions until we know what the size of the wave of cases that is about to hit the NHS is.

Hopefully, the government’s denial of a lockdown in London is just a ruse in order to avoid a mass evacuation of the city before the order is given. And that lockdown will also be applied to the rest of the country over the next few days.

But if the UK Government really don’t have any plans to tackle the coronavirus beyond the current ‘mitigation’, i.e. asking nicely, then things could, unfortunately, get very grim and very quickly.

And it could be grimmer in Wales than anywhere else, as we have fewer intensive care unit beds per head of the population, and a higher percentage of the population in the 60+ age bracket who are most at risk.

And unfortunately, despite controlling Wales’ NHS the Welsh Government do not have any extraordinary powers to take these matters into their own hands. They have no power to introduce a lockdown of Wales unilaterally.

Wales’ fate will be decided in London, and we will have to pray that the choice the UK Government has made doesn’t have too high a price.

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Ann OwenMike MurphySimon GruffyddJonathan Edwardsj humphrys Recent comment authors
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vicky moller
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vicky moller

Another alternative is to manufacture the kit (oxygen, o2 concentraters, ventilators, protective clothing etc) and train operators and open new wards just for corona as China did, and manufacture test kits so only those infectious need to be isolated. We have an advanced economy, capacity still to make stuff, and to train people. Would that not be the most effective response?

Huw Davies
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Huw Davies

Correct. However much of our so-called capacity seems to be rigidly demarcated for production of a narrow range of products. It should be possible to take a few drawings, instruct machine shops, mould shops, fabricators etc to put together the parts list and then engage in final assembly under controlled conditions. So far I’m not hearing of anyone getting to grips with this. CBI seem to be fixated on handouts, worse that those benefit scroungers they all despise !

Mawkernewek
Guest

I am switching my computer off now to protect my mental health. I’m turning on Radio 3 and going to try to sleep for a while.

Gisella A.
Member

From Italy, it’s a very sad read. Since there’s nothing you can do about Government decisions, I would urge everybody to start adopting self-isolation and as much as possible. I know some people cannot, because they have jobs for which they’re forced to go to work. In this case, just use any possible precautions because remember: most people spreading the virus, especially younger ones, have not developed symptoms and are completely unaware, therefore very sneaky. No need to panic, food and essential goods are always available even after weeks of lockdown. But take it seriously. And if the Government doesn’t… Read more »

Walter Hunt
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Walter Hunt

On Friday 13th the views of Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government Chief Scientific Advisor held sway, then by Monday things were moving in the direction of Sir Roy Anderson, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Defence pro early intervention stance. On page 4 of “Considerations relating to social distancing measures in response to the COVID-19 epidemic”, the European Centre for Disease Control states starkly:”it is estimated that if…..interventions …. had been conducted 1 week, 2 weeks, or 3 weeks earlier in China, the number of cases could have been reduced by 66%, 86%, and 95%, respectively”

Plain citizen
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Plain citizen

You make some good points but one of the problems with this virus is its capacity to reappear which is what the Chinese are discovering. The Chinese authorities are saying that as the region of Wuhan (formerly the epicentre) has no new cases they are concerned that 95% of the population (of Wuhan) has had no contact with and no immunity from the virus that returnees from afar with it will cause a new epidemic. Which is where Chinas new cases are coming from.

Jessica Starr
Member
Jessica Starr

I don’t think the three choices are that clear cut. The risk to the economy – which is to say risk of people losing their businesses, their jobs, their homes – gets higher the longer and stricter the isolation period lasts. As we see from China it seems likely that second rounds of infections (and third, fourth) will follow because a huge sector of the population is susceptible, they have not had the virus yet. So containment, while it does slow the infection rate, is not really a solution. The main problem is that if too many people get sick… Read more »

Jonathan Gammond
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Jonathan Gammond

If there were just three options, it wouldn’t be that hard to choose, more likely, 3,333,333 options in a modern complicated economy in a 21st century free society.

j humphrys
Guest
j humphrys

Norway has banned people from using their summer cottages, to protect local health centres.
Sweden and Finland expected to follow. Wales should have the power to do the same.

Jonathan Edwards
Guest

Not limited to 3 choices. A fourth choice would be – assess the risks rationally for once. We happily accept the death toll on the roads: noone suggests shutting down the road network and the economy. We happily accept the death toll from ordinary ‘flu, in large numbers; noone suggests shutting the place down, and the economy, because of ‘flu. Judging by the scorecard in Boots, comparing ‘flu and Wuhan flu, I’d rather have Wuhan flu any day, it seems milder! But then, humans are notoriously bad at measuring risk. Avoiding risk completely, no matter how minor or remote, is… Read more »

Simon Gruffydd
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Simon Gruffydd

You can get the most up to date facts from Italy here:
https://www.epicentro.iss.it/coronavirus/bollettino/Infografica_19marzo%20ENG.pdf
Study the statistics. The best advice for anyone of okay health under 70 is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. People over 70 with chronic illnesses and frail health – take precautions.

Simon Gruffydd
Guest
Simon Gruffydd

Can we please get a little perspective here. Here are the statistics from Coronavirus Mortality Statistics from Italy, the hardest hit European country so far, compiled by the Instituto Superiore di Sanita: Average age of deceased – 81 … 10% over 90 years … 90% over 70 years … 80% with 2 or more chronic illnesses … 50% with 3 or more chronic illnesses … 0.8% with no chronic illnesses … 5 people under the age of 40 died with severe pre-existing conditions … Causes of death still undetermined … In other words, unless you are very old and are… Read more »

Mike Murphy
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Mike Murphy

I am in lockdown in Italy (Milan).
4 weeks ago bars and restaurants were asked to reduce numbers inside and encourage social distancing. 3 weeks ago they were instructed to close at 6pm and to strictly adhere to 1m spacing or face closure. 2 weeks ago they were ordered to close completely.

There was mild panic buying for 2 days around 4 weeks ago, but nothing since and all shelves are fully stocked (with exception of hand sanitizer).

Government (UK & Wales) need to give clear unambiguous advice – and most people will follow.

Ann Owen
Guest
Ann Owen

The Welsh Government does have far reaching rights under the already existing Public Health Act – closing bars etc came under that Act that was exercised by Drakeford here in Wales – he specifically mentioned HIS powers when announcing the closure. According to some reports Police in Cornwall stopped traffic and turned caravans back yesterday. This needs to happen here. In Snowdonia it’s like a summer bank holiday – closure of schools and fine weather has led to absolute madness! Whilst the streets of London are quiet, the roads and mountains here are heaving! People are also moving en masse… Read more »