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London View | Cities in Britain Witness Alarming Levels of Covid as Science Goes One Way, Govt the Other

A view of people outside a bar after Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out a new three-tier alert system for England, in Liverpool, England, Monday Oct. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

A view of people outside a bar after Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out a new three-tier alert system for England, in Liverpool, England, Monday Oct. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

The government’s refusal to accept published advice from its own scientists has meant that the spread of the virus in Britain has now risen to alarming levels, almost entirely, as Britain’s chief scientists had warned no more than a couple of weeks back it would.

A widening gap is opening up by the day between British government policy on the one hand and scientific advice closely overlapping with common sense on the other. The government’s refusal to accept published advice from its own scientists has meant that the spread of the virus in Britain has now risen to alarming levels, almost entirely, as Britain’s chief scientists had warned no more than a couple of weeks back it would.

Recommendations from the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (happily abbreviated as ‘Sage’) last month for a “circuit-breaker” lockdown over a two to three-week period were turned down. Sage also recommended an immediate closure of all bars, pubs and restaurants, citing multiple instances of an outbreak from these places.

The government’s response to both recommendations has left many stunned.

In place of a short national lockdown, the government has introduced a three-tier system of graded restrictions, where bars and restaurants will be closed only in the areas with the highest levels of Covid-19. The city most affected currently is Liverpool. It has been seeing upwards of 600 Covid positive cases per 1,00,000 people -- 635 on Tuesday when the national average was 81. But Liverpool is by no means going through anything like prohibition. It’s an hour’s drive or less to neighbouring towns and villages where pubs and bars are open and inviting. The government appears not to have noticed that Britain is quite a small country with an excellent road network.

No law is in force in England to stop anyone travelling to or from the most severely hit areas. On Wednesday, Wales banned travel to the region from the most affected areas of England. England, the biggest of the four nations in Britain (the others being Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), has imposed no restriction on movement. The government has offered only advisories. Such advisories appear to have been little heeded so far.

Pubs or Restaurants

Instead of shutting down pubs and restaurants all over England as Sage advised, the government ordered them to close at 10pm daily rather than the usual 11pm. What followed, surprised no one -- people simply went to the pub a little earlier, and downed their beers faster. This then brought a further spillover -- a few drinks down, people simply spilled out to party on the streets, watered by more liquor from stores around.

The government made a distinction between pubs and restaurants. In the more severely hit areas pubs are to remain closed but restaurants can stay open. The distinction is not very clear because pubs also serve food, and restaurants also serve alcoholic drinks. The government directive is that in cities such as Liverpool pubs “can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant.”

The critical requirement is that pubs must serve “substantial” food with their drinks. What is substantial for one may of course not be substantial for another. The government’s view that is that it “expects people to act reasonably”. All of Britain has seen much flexibility in interpreting “reasonable” behaviour.

Highest in Europe

Britain now has now the highest number of Covid cases in all of Europe in this second wave of the virus. Back in March, Britain took the least stringent steps in Europe and was the last country to do so, and consequently reported the highest number of cases and deaths. The second wave of the virus seems now to be riding a second wave of government inaction that matches the first. The incidence in Britain stands at fourth worldwide in reporting new cases, behind India, the USA and Brazil. India, unlike Europe, is now seeing a decline in new cases.

Following on from the rising number of infections, the number of deaths is rising significantly across Britain. Hospitals in the north of England are close to saturation in dealing with Covid cases. Britain has the highest death toll in Europe this year at more than 42,000, going by the numbers dying within 28 days of Covid diagnosis in hospital. The toll, going by death certificates mentioning Covid-19 as the cause, is closer to 60,000. A per capita equivalent of that in India would be a million deaths.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is leading calls for a short national lockdown to be imposed quickly. However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists that the government’s three-tier segregation system is enough for now. Fears are rising that an autumn delay from the government, in line with the spring delay in ordering a lockdown, will now bring tens of thousands more deaths that could be avoided.

first published:October 14, 2020, 21:24 IST