The purpose of social distancing is to minimise the contact between people in an attempt to curb the spread of coronavirus. While a great number of countries started implementing it early on, it seemed to me that the UK was going in a different direction than the rest of Europe. In fact, Boris Johnson’s government was one of the slowest to impose such a measure. Only last month, despite reporting more than a thousand cases across the country, bars, restaurants and some universities were still open.
For me, it comes as no surprise that a country which strives to do everything differently than the rest of Europe should choose not to follow the same trend. While we watched as France, Belgium, Germany and Portugal closed down schools and day-cares, Boris Johnson’s government, instead of imposing social distancing and lockdown, had decided to utilise a strategy called ‘herd immunity’.
The strategy rested on the idea that vulnerable groups should be protected while the rest of the population would become immune to the virus. Herd immunity might have worked in theory, but it was, I think, a different matter altogether in practice. For one thing, it would have put an enormous pressure on the NHS to treat so many patients at the same time. Furthermore, since the elderly and people with underlying conditions are the most affected by the virus, the impact would certainly not have been distributed evenly among the population (250 000 to 1 million deaths were estimated in the UK alone). Lastly, since other countries had not implemented similar measures, it meant the virus would nonetheless have been transmissible across the world.
The internet’s response was no different than mine – people were questioning official numbers and worrying about the public’s lack of restrictions. Unsurprisingly, many chose to ignore public regulations and isolate themselves at home.
It did not surprise me when, a week after this strategy was announced, Boris Johnson changed course, instructing people to ‘stop non-essential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel.’ Elderly people were advised to stay at home, and if one family member showed symptoms, the entire household was told to self-isolate for 14 days. Those measures at least, though implemented a bit late, made the UK fall in line with the great majority of European countries.
A few days later, Boris Johnson, who had previously told people that ‘many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time’, tested positive for the virus. Initially experiencing fever and a persistent cough, he was moved to the ICU as his symptoms worsened. I could not help but question whether the NHS staff, in whose hands rested the Prime Minister’s own life, had had their job made difficult by the policy shifts.
Now in my native country, where I can face a considerable fine should I not comply with the rules, I can’t help but wonder – could Britain have handled this virus better from the start? Despite having China and Italy as cautionary examples, why did the government choose a different strategy than the rest of the world, one which was dangerous, experimental and extremely unethical? The fact that Boris Johnson himself was ill highlights the dangers such a virus poses. It also shows the dangers of not acting fast enough when confronted with a pandemic. And can a safe strategy, like social distancing, have its own setbacks when applied too late?