COVID-19: Social Self-isolation is Government's New Policy of Choice

Peter Russell

March 16, 2020

People in the UK should try to avoid pubs, clubs, and theatres, the Government said, as it stepped up its response to COVID-19.

Following a meeting of the emergency COBRA committee, the Prime Minister said all "non-essential" travel and unnecessary contact with others should now be avoided.

Also, anyone in the same house as someone who had a fever or a new and continuous cough would be asked to self-isolate for 14 days.

Boris Johnson stopped short of following the lead of other countries which have prohibited large groups of people getting together but said that it would "no longer be supporting mass gatherings with emergency workers in the way that we normally do".

Daily Coronavirus Briefings

The more stringent measures were announced as Boris Johnson chaired the first of daily regular on-camera news conferences flanked by Prof Chris Whitty, the Government's chief medical adviser and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser.

It came as the total number of people in the UK to test positive for COVID-19 rose by 171 to a total of 1543. 

The number of people to have died with the virus stands at 55.

"It looks as though we are now approaching the fast growth part of the upward curve, and without drastic action, cases could double every 5 or 6 days," a sombre Mr Johnson said.

However, the spread of COVID-19 was uneven, with London "a few weeks ahead" and in need of more urgent action to relieve pressure on the NHS.

Sir Patrick said additional measures, including school closures, could become necessary but that "things need to be done at the right time".

'At-Risk' Groups Should Take Care

Prof Whitty outlined the groups of people who should be taking particular care. These were:

  • People over the age of 70

  • Adults in 'at risk' groups who would normally be eligible for the free influenza vaccine

  • Pregnant women

"Those are the groups we want to take particular care to minimise their social contact which of course will have very significant risks for them."

With the aim of protecting older and more vulnerable people, Mr Johnson announced that by next weekend "it will be necessary to go further and to ensure that those with the most serious health conditions are largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks".

The Government's response to COVID-19 teetered over the weekend when a letter signed by more than 200 scientists living and working in the UK set out their concerns.

They said they were particularly worried by a delay in 'social distancing' measures which they believed put the country at extra risk of the virus spreading in line with that of the worst hit European countries, including Italy, Spain, France, and Germany.

They wrote: "The same data suggests that the number of infected will be in the order of dozens of thousands within a few days.

"Under unconstrained growth, this outbreak will affect millions of people in the next few weeks.

"This will most probably put the NHS at serious risk of not being able to cope with the flow of patients needing intensive care, as the number of ICU beds in the UK is not larger than that available in other neighbouring countries with a similar population."

The scientists were also critical of aims stated by Sir Patrick, who suggested that the UK needed to build 'herd immunity' from COVID-19, saying that would put additional pressure on the health system.

That led Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, to deny that herd immunity was part of current Government policy.

The latest measures were broadly welcomed by experts. 

Reaction to the Government's Latest Announcements

Prof Sir Robert Lechler, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said: "I applaud the Government's approach of putting advice and evidence from world leading experts front and centre of their plans to deal with the global COVID-19 emergency.

"Today’s announcements are an example of this. Any action we take must be specific to the precise stage of the epidemic we are in.

"The actions taken in the UK so far have put us slightly ahead of some other countries when they were at a same stage of the epidemic.

"As the situation in the UK progresses, it is right that we are now moving into a phase of increased social distancing."

Dr Zania Stamataki, a viral immunologist at the University of Birmingham, said: "The tone from the message was clear, we are taking this crisis seriously and as a liberal democracy we trust the public to follow sensible guidelines. We are in this for the long-haul."

Appeal for More Ventilators to Assist in Critical Care

Concerns that severe cases of the new coronavirus could outstrip NHS critical and intensive care resources appeared to be borne out when Mr Hancock appealed at the weekend to British engineering firms to produce more hospital ventilators.

It was reported that carmakers and the construction equipment firm JCB were among those contacted in what Mr Hancock called a "national crisis". He told the Andrew Marr Show on BBC TV: "Every single person in this country is going to be affected, and is going to have to do things."

Prof David Delpy, a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, told the Science Media Centre that supply chain limitations could hamper production of the latest electronically controlled ventilators.

"However," he said, "the previous generation of mechanical ventilators were relatively simpler, and components could be manufactured by many engineering companies with fairly standard machine tools."

Also, many of these simpler, mechanical ventilators, donated in the last 2 decades to charities for use abroad, might still be found in UK storage and could be quickly refurbished, he said.

Inspections on Hold, Fast-track for Medical Students

In other developments, routine healthcare and care home inspections were put on hold with immediate effect, the Care Quality Commission announced.

Medical schools in the UK have also been told to consider fast-tracking qualifications for final year medical students in response to the serious challenge posed by the spread of COVID-19.


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