Britain's new anti-virus strategy sparks controversy

Britain’s Parliament has approved Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s emergency plan to contain an alarming rise in new coronavirus infections by dividing the country into three risk tiers, and apply different hygiene measures depending on the level of Covid-19 prevalence.

Only those living in the very high risk tier 3 areas where there is a large number of virus carriers will be subjected to a total lockdown, including a ban on all public meetings, commercial and social activities; Britons residing in tiers 1 and 2 – classified as medium or high-risk areas, respectively – will be allowed more freedom to go about their daily lives.

The new system is designed to simplify and harmonise the existing and often confusing patchwork of health regulations and dampen infection rates while still avoiding a repeat of the complete national shutdown first applied in March, which had catastrophic effects on the nation’s economy.

“This is not how we want to live our lives, but this is the narrow path we have to tread between the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown and the massive human, and indeed economic cost of an uncontained epidemic,” Mr Johnson told MPs.

But an initiative designed to reassert the Prime Minister’s leadership in managing the health crisis was swiftly undermined by the release of previously-classified documents showing that his government’s own advisers had warned as far back as three weeks ago that more draconian measures would be required to act as a “circuit-breaker” on the further contagion.

And the Johnson government was also criticised by local leaders in various parts of England, who resent the curbs placed on them by administrators in London.

After a lull during the summer months, the number of new coronavirus infections in Britain started rising in early September, and now runs at around 15,000 daily, the highest since the pandemic started early this year.

By all accounts, most of the newly infected are young, therefore requiring no hospitalisation and often exhibiting no symptoms. It is noticeable, for instance, that the focal points for the current pandemic are the northern English cities of Liverpool and Nottingham, both big university centres where students have just started a new academic year.

So, at least for now, mortality rates are low: Around 70 people are recorded as dying on average every day as a result of Covid-related complications, a far cry from the average of 1,000 daily deaths in the earlier days of the pandemic.

Still, the fear is that what has started with the young may spill over to the rest of the population. And hospital admissions for acutely ill patients are already rising fast.

Emergency hospitals constructed by the military earlier this year but subsequently deactivated for lack of demand have yet again been ordered to go on a high state of alert.

With some parts of the country affected more than others, the introduction of a new system which treats bits of Britain differently on the basis of risk assessments is viewed as more effective than the complete national shutdown applied before.

But it is also controversial. The city of Liverpool is the only part of the UK which currently falls under the tier 3 highest-risk designation. Nobody, though, can explain why Nottingham, which has a higher infection rate than Liverpool, is classified as only a tier 2 risk city.

Mr Johnson, who faced hostile questions from more than 100 Members of Parliament yesterday, offered no plausible definition for the supposed distinction between “high” and “very high” risk areas. And the expectation is that criticism of the tiered system will only get worse as parts of the country move either up or down the risk table.

But the biggest problem with the new system is that nobody knows what the impact of the proposed restrictions will be. Closing bars and restaurants and imposing early evening curfews could encourage people to congregate in their own or their friends’ homes, for instance, and although this would be illegal, it is also near to impossible to police.

Professor Christopher Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has already admitted that he was not confident the measures “would be enough to get on top of” the virus, hinting that the local authorities in “very high” alert areas would have to go further.

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