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LONDON — Officials in the United Kingdom over the weekend warned British citizens that life under lockdown is unlikely to end anytime soon.
One of the epidemiologists advising the government, Neil Ferguson, warned that the isolation measures aimed at reducing the spread of novel coronavirus could continue until early June. Then, England’s deputy chief medical officer said it may be six months before life returns to normal. Both estimates extend well beyond April 14, the date when the British government is expected to reassess the restrictions.
The rules of the lockdown are simple, and will sound familiar to the many Americans who are also doing their part to socially distance as the number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. grows. Last week, everyone in the U.K. with a cellphone received the details in an alert via text: “New rules in force now: you must stay at home.” There are exemptions: You can go out for food, one form of exercise a day and to go to work, provided your job can’t be done from home. The police can fine rule-breakers £60 ($74.35) on the spot.
The lockdown was prompted by concern that the crisis in the U.K. will soon resemble that of Spain and Italy. Epidemiologists here fear it may reach Spain’s magnitude as early as next week.
As of Monday, the coronavirus had claimed the lives of at least 1,408 people in the U.K., and more than 20,000 have tested positive. Both Spain and Italy each reported 812 deaths between Sunday to Monday.
In its current iteration, the U.K. lockdown isn’t as strict as those imposed in Italy or Spain, but that too may change. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned in a letter to every British household on Saturday that a further tightening of controls may be needed, especially if people can’t follow the guidelines already laid out. He sent the communique from isolation — Johnson, too, has tested positive for COVID-19.
Even before the British lockdown was announced, restrictions were being implemented on cafes, theatres and pubs — staples of daily life and sources of income. Economists expect the U.K. will face a downturn at least as vicious as the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, and while data lags actual events by weeks, individual companies are already showing the strain. On Monday, the Italian restaurant chain Carluccio’s, with 70 restaurants and 2,000 employees in the U.K., went bust. Last week, 477,000 people applied for welfare – eight times the usual figure.
Christopher A. Pissarides, the London School of Economics’ Nobel Prize-winning professor of economics and political science, said that the shorter the lockdown, the less the lasting impact. China’s two-month lockdown led to a sharp, but perhaps short-lived recession.
“Duration is critical. China has surprised everyone. China still remains locked off from the world, but within China, life is getting back to normal. If the duration is uncertain or goes on beyond August or into next year, companies will become more reserved,” Pissarides said.
In response, the British government has intervened with sweeping and unprecedented support – promising the self-employed up to 80 percent of their average earnings as a grant. The same was promised for company employees, so long as their companies don’t lay them off.
Even in its short time so far, the lockdown has already ripped through every family in this nation. Schools are closed for at least the rest of the academic year, but kids are attending school online. The lockdown complicates academic projections for high school seniors applying to university. Acceptance at universities in the U.K. is almost always conditional on performance in final exams, a little like the SATs. Exams were supposed to take place in May, but have been cancelled — something that has never been done before.
The decision to admit a student, or not, will now be based on assessment by their teachers. With kids’ futures hanging in the balance, there are a lot of questions as to how students will be graded, or when they can start their degree courses. A lot of dreams almost certainly just got deferred, not to mention that 6 feet of social distancing means kids must, metaphorically, kiss goodbye to farewell hugs, prom and graduation.
But while the lockdown has put a halt on vital economic activity, daily life and normal milestones, most in the U.K. fear what is yet to come.
Brits have watched – in horror – the footage from Italian hospitals overrun by coronavirus. If anything, the criticism is that the U.K. lockdown did not come soon enough.
“Britain made a mistake delaying the lockdown even by that week. You would have thought they would have learned from Italy,” Pissarides said. He is not alone in believing that the delay will hurt the economy, prolong the length the lockdown needs to be in place and above all, cost lives.
Medical officials have already reported up to 25 percent of the country’s hospital workers are unable to work because they or family members are showing symptoms.
On Thursday evening, the entire neighborhood of Kingston Upon Thames, a suburb outside of London, erupted into applause. From doors and balconies across the nation, Brits joined in a collective demonstration of support for the men and women of the National Health Service (NHS) amid a frantic rush to prepare for the coming influx of COVID-19 patients.
Britons aren’t just sitting on the sidelines. They’re getting involved in huge numbers. On Sunday, the government said it was halting a campaign to recruit volunteers after a whopping 750,000 Brits signed up to help. Bailiffs have suspended collecting loans and started ferrying medical supplies. Twenty thousand retired hospital workers have returned to help fight against the pandemic.
When Johnson announced the national lockdown last Monday — in the first such prime ministerial address since Tony Blair announced the British involvement in the Iraq War nearly 20 years ago — at least 27 million Britons watched. Johnson’s pre-recorded speech was among the most watched broadcasts in Britain since 1966, when England defeated West Germany in the World Cup. In the wake of a divisive debate over Brexit and in the midst of a pandemic, 72 percent of eligible voters say they are satisfied with Johnson – a figure not achieved by a prime minister since 1997, according to a Bloomberg poll this week.
This isn’t a country coming apart at the seams. Brits, in their isolation, are actually coming together.
This is the U.K.’s first lockdown in modern history. Pubs and schools remained open in 1940 even as Germany’s Luftwaffe bombed the British capital for 56 days during World War II.
But these controls on movement are not totally unprecedented. When the Great Plague struck London in 1665, the king ordered a variety of restrictions. The homes of plague victims were sealed for 40 days. Ships from plague-stricken continental Europe were quarantined. Yet the plague wreaked havoc on the city for a full 18 months, killing an estimated quarter of the city’s population.
While no one knows how long this lockdown will last, preparations for darker days in the U.K. continue. The military has transformed the ExCel Centre, a giant convention center in East London, into a 4,000-bed hospital. The U.K.’s low cost-carrier EasyJet has grounded its entire fleet; many of its and other airlines’ cabin crews will now look after the sick at the hospital. Meanwhile, Birmingham Airport has been transformed into a temporary mortuary.
The government will discuss what comes via video-conference (like all government affairs nowadays) closer to Easter Monday, when the initial term expires. But right now, those leading the response to the virus are finding they are not immune to it.
Johnson on Friday became the first leader of a major world power to report he has COVID-19. Self-isolating in his apartment on Downing Street, the prime minister now gets his meals and government papers left at the door. On Monday, the government announced Johnson’s closest aide, Dominic Cummings, is joining the U.K.’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Chief Medical Office Chris Witty in self-isolating after developing symptoms of the virus. Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, just completed a week of self-isolation at the royals’ Balmoral estate in Scotland after testing positive.
On Monday, the prime minister tweeted a now familiar message: Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives. The tsunami, as they’re calling it, is coming. Brits will meet it at home.
Ryan Chilcote is a PBS NewsHour Special Correspondent. Based in London, Ryan has been reporting on foreign affairs and economics in Europe, the Middle East and Africa since 1995.
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