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Situation Update - Coronavirus Outbreak

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UK GOVERNMENT ELEVATES RESPONSE MEASURES TO COVID-19 OUTBREAK

  • UK government introduces daily press conferences concerning COVID-19 outbreak

  • UK government proposes ‘social distancing’ advice with immediate effect

  • Individuals over the age of 70, persons with specific health conditions and pregnant women told to take particular note of advice

  • High-risk groups soon to be told to stay at home for 12-weeks

  • Virus spreading most rapidly in London

  • Foreign Secretary advises against foreign travel anywhere in the world for initial 30-day period

  • Over 1,500 UK confirmed cases; actual cases estimated between 35,000-50,000

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Situation

In a drastic upscaling in advice on Monday, 16 March, the United Kingdom (UK) government introduced a raft of new measures to help prevent against the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19). At the first of his new daily press conferences, Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised to avoid unnecessary travel and contact with others, saying social distancing was necessary as the UK approaches the fast growth part of the upward curve in the number of cases. 

The Prime Minister specifically stated that pregnant women, people over the age of 70 and those with long-term health conditions or a weakened immune system should consider the advice “particularly important”. In addition, Johnson mentioned that the virus is spreading more rapidly in the capital, London, than elsewhere in the UK. 

Key measures announced by the government include: 

  • Everyone should avoid gatherings and crowded places, such as pubs, clubs and theatres
  • Everyone should work from home if they can
  • All “unnecessary” visits to friends and relatives in care homes should cease
  • People should only use the NHS “where we really need to” - and can reduce the burden on NHS workers by seeking advice from the NHS website where possible
  • By next weekend (21-22 March), those with the most serious health conditions must be “largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks”
  • The UK is now “three weeks” behind Italy - the worst-hit country in Europe
  • If one person in any household has a persistent cough or fever, everyone living there must stay at home for 14 days
  • Those people should, if possible, avoid leaving the house “even to buy food or essentials”, but they may leave the house “for exercise and, in that case, at a safe distance from others”
  • Schools will not be closed for the moment 

The announcement comes as more than 1,500 positive cases have been confirmed in the UK; however, the actual number of cases is estimated to be between 35,000 and 50,000, according to UK scientists. 

On Tuesday, 17 March, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that the government was now advising against foreign travel anywhere in the world, for an initial 30-day period. This shift in strategy comes as the European Commission reportedly plans to ban all non-essential throughout the Schengen area, which is expected to be requested by the Commission's President Ursula von der Leyen to European leaders on Tuesday, 17 March.

Analysis

According to the Prime Minister, the UK is rapidly approaching the fastest growth part of the upward curve in the number of infections. The government's scientific modelling, produced by Imperial College London, reportedly indicated that the country was on course for a “catastrophic epidemic” and if the advice offered by the government was not expanded to include social distancing, infections would have overwhelmed intensive care units. The modelling predicted a UK death toll of 260,000.

Under the new advice, it is forecast that by reducing the number of overall cases to ‘very low levels’, deaths from coronavirus would be limited to the thousands or tens of thousands. It should be noted that most of those who have died in the UK, of which there have been 56 deaths as of 17 March, have been people over the age of 60 with underlying health conditions.

Despite the announcement, concerns are persisting, namely that the new approach would prevent immunity among communities, and as such, when the measures are lifted, infections could resume and continue spread once again. The government has advised that these measures will likely be in place for some time, especially for high-risk groups. It is estimated by the current modelling that the measures would need to be in place until a vaccination is widely available, for which this could take 18-months.

It has been noted that the advice offered by the UK government continues to differ from that being offered by other nations, particularly in that the onerous is being placed upon the public and businesses. For example, the current advice stipulates that everyone should avoid gatherings with friends and family, as well as large gatherings and crowded places, such as pubs, clubs and theatres, but there has been no enforceable order to close such premises. In addition, it is the government's advice that people should avoid non-essential travel and work from home if they can, but again, as of writing, there are no apparent plans to close the country’s borders as is being witnessed elsewhere globally. Schools will also not be forced to close at present.

According to Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK's chief scientific adviser, the UK is now “three weeks” behind Italy, which is currently in a lock-down situation to help slow the spread of the outbreak.

Implications

The government advice, especially that delivered by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab against foreign travel anywhere in the world, for an initial 30-day period, could have a profound effect on the ability of businesses to survive, in particular in the aviation and travel sectors. On Tuesday, 17 March, the British Airline Pilots' Association (BALPA) announced that British Airways was due to make an unspecified number of pilots redundant. While CAPA - Centre for Aviation reported that most global airlines will be bankrupt by the end of May if there is not a coordinated government response to support the sector.

Multiple carriers in Europe have announced severe cuts to even short-haul services as individual border management policies go into effect. EasyJet has reported potential plans to ground the majority of its aircraft, while British Airways owner International Airlines Group (IAG) announced it will reduce capacity across its airlines’ networks by 75%. In addition, Austrian Airlines will suspend all its scheduled flights from 19 March until at least 28 March.

Flight statistics provider OAG say there are 4.5 million fewer seats this week compared with last, and further reductions will occur in the coming weeks. This reduction in airline capacity could result in cancellations with short notice. Cargo and freight movements should not be significantly impacted at this stage.

The government’s new guidance has also faced criticism for a lack of support from other sectors, such as operators of pubs, theatres and music venues, whilst on Tuesday; retailer Laura Ashley said it would appoint administrators and its shares would be suspended. Whilst the government has announced it will provide financial assistance to businesses, details of this assistance are not currently available.

Meanwhile, emergency legislation related to the outbreak will be introduced to Parliament on Thursday, 19 March, and the government's Budget, which takes into consideration the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak, is expected to be passed unopposed.

As iterated by the UK government, travellers abroad now face widespread international border restrictions and lockdowns in various countries. Further, individuals should review whether planned travel is essential and should consider delaying or cancelling travel. If individuals are asked to self-isolate or are subject quarantine measures, they should do so.