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British government worries about virus outbreak, but residents carry on

In the United Kingdom, novel coronavirus has killed six people as of Tuesday, with another 370 infected and quarantined. The British government is watching how the illness spread quickly and pervasively in Italy, fearing the same could happen in the UK. But as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, the current attitude among the British is very much to keep calm and carry on.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return to COVID-19, and to Britain, where, so far, the virus has killed six people there; 370 people are infected and quarantined.

    The British government is watching developments in Italy, amid fears that levels of infection could rise dramatically, and soon.

    But as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports, for the time being, the attitude in Britain is very much, keep calm and carry on.

  • Malcolm Brabant (singing):

    God save our gracious queen. Long live our noble queen.

    I haven't suddenly become super patriotic because of Brexit, but I'm following, to the letter, the instructions from Britain's prime minister.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    The best single thing we can do is wash our hands, two verses of the national anthem or happy birthday, hot water, bar of soap.

    Two verses.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    After winning the general election three months ago, Boris Johnson's main leadership challenge was to negotiate post-Brexit trade deals.

    But now his premiership is being tested by war with an invisible enemy that threatens both the health and wealth of the nation.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    If we continue to look out for one another, to pull together in a united and national effort, I have no doubt that we can and will rise to that challenge.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Currently, the government is trying to contain the virus, and has postponed measures such as establishing exclusion zones to delay its spread.

    But more stringent controls are coming, says Chris Whitty, the government's chief medical adviser.

  • Chris Whitty:

    So, we are now very close to the time, probably within the next 10 to 14 days, when the modeling would imply we should move to a situation where we say, everybody who has even minor respiratory tract infections or a fever should be self-isolating for seven days afterwards.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    That means anyone with a cough or cold will be obliged to stay home.

    The government has guaranteed that sick pay will kick in from day one, instead of the usual day four.

    But what about financially vulnerable groups?

  • Robert Dingwall:

    How do you self-isolate if you're in precarious employment? How do you self-isolate if you're too poor to have sufficient stocks of food in the House?

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Sociologist Robert Dingwall advises the government on morality and the ethics of its emergency planning.

  • Robert Dingwall:

    Essentially, if the government is going to ask people to self-isolate, the government has to take responsibility for the consequences of that.

    And that's in terms of ensuring those people have an income, that they have access to food, they have access to other services that they might need during that period of self-isolation.

    You can't just ask for the self-isolation on its own.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    For now, Britain has decided not to follow Italy, where soccer matches have taken place in empty stadiums.

    At Derby County, attendance at the latest game was above average. The club's mascot was tactile, despite advice to reduce human contact. Here, 130 miles north of London, characteristic British stoicism was on prominent display.

  • Gordon Robinson:

    Football's got to continue. You can't stop things. You cannot stop your way of living because of a virus that's only killed a few people at this moment in time.

  • Stacey Goodwin:

    For me, the media is blowing it all out of proportion. They're making a mountain out of a molehill. They're causing people to panic-buy. And, yes, me, I'm not worried.

  • Margaret Edwards:

    I know, with me being older, you see, they're talking about stopping older people from coming because they're more vulnerable to it. But I have had all sorts over my life. If I have got to go, I have got to go.

  • Shirley Cox:

    People are starting to panic. When we went to Sainsbury's yesterday, you couldn't get a toilet roll. People are stockpiling already. What does it say about Britain? Well, we go into panic mode too easily, I think.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The latest British obsession with hoarding toilet paper puzzles some, because the virus impacts the respiratory, and not other systems.

    The disappearance of hand sanitizers from shelves is more understandable. Retailers have insisted that they have enough supplies and will restock. But shoppers don't appear reassured.

  • Sir Simon Wessely:

    I hate that phrase panic buying.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Sir Simon Wessely is a leading psychiatrist and expert in mass hysteria. He's one of the behavioral scientists advising the government how to best handle the crisis.

  • Sir Simon Wessely:

    You would have to be an idiot not to go and get essential supplies, toilet paper, dog food, et cetera. I have done both of those myself.

    So this isn't panic buying. This is a rational decision by people thinking, I might be stuck in my house for 14 days.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But in an age of individualism, of diminishing community spirit, coupled with skepticism of authority figures, could the public revolt against future tougher measures?

  • Sir Simon Wessely:

    In general, I think the public have already shown that they will follow instructions, so long as they understand them, so long as they are given clearly, and so long as the purpose is there, particularly if, instead of frightening people that if you don't we will send you to prison or fine you, but, actually, if you do this, you are helping the common good, you are protecting your relatives, you're protecting the sick and the vulnerable.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Britain's royal family is playing its part. There was no handshaking at Westminster Abbey for a service notable as the last official engagement of Prince Harry and his American wife, Meghan Markle, who are withdrawing from royal duties.

    The queen's heir, Prince Charles, proffered an Eastern greeting. But for such gatherings to continue, Britain needs to amend the lyrics of its national anthem to still send her victorious, but over a new foe.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in London.

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