Interesting article...Surfin, Boris and Merkel versus the rest of Europe
Italy is no outlier, it's a frontrunner. These nations are set to follow
Many European nations are now on the same coronavirus infection trajectory as Italy. But the British government has opted for a very different strategy.
It has long been tradition for an elite group of flower growers to sweep through the fields of the Netherlands in early April. Their colourful haul is blessed by the Bishop of Rotterdam before being shipped to the Vatican, where it is carefully arranged to frame the Pope during Easter Sunday Mass.
Chief designer Paul Deckers has been part of the ritual since 1988. But not this year. His plans are in ruins as the coronavirus pandemic radiates across Europe.
"Given the developments and the measures which have been taken in Italy we decided not to take any risks," Deckers says. He doesn't think the event in St Peter's Square will even go ahead.
As COVID-19 spreads across the continent, other decisions of much greater consequence loom. Some are matters of actual life or death. Doctors in Italy this week published guidelines warning that patients over a certain age might have to be left to die so that scarce intensive care beds can be given to younger people with a better chance of survival.
"Resources may have to be used first for those with a higher probability of survival and, secondly, who has the most years of life left, and offer the maximum number of benefits to the majority of people," the advice warned.
The scale and impact of the Italian outbreak has stunned the world. The country has been shut down under emergency measures not seen since World War II. Its economy has been paralysed. Anyone who goes outside is being stopped by police or the military and asked to produce evidence about why they are there. Total infections have now surpassed 15,000 and more than than 1000 people have died in a fortnight.
Many European leaders mistakenly believed the situation could be contained. But something snapped this week and what is now abundantly clear is that Italy is no outlier - it is merely a frontrunner.
On current trajectories Germany, France, Spain, Britain, Sweden, Belgium, Norway and Switzerland will all soon record the same high number of infections as Italy. In Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France, Australia, Sweden, Greece, Spain and Britain, the total number of cases has been roughly doubling every two days as community transmission takes hold.
Most of the worst-affected European nations are now about 10 days away from catching up to Italy's current position, but some have been gifted as many as three to four weeks to prepare for the deluge.
Leaders are now grappling with how to use that time. School and university closures have been popular, so too bans on mass gatherings. Some countries - such as the Czech Republic - have banned flights from certain parts of Europe, and Austria isn't letting people from Italy over the border without a doctor's certificate. In Belgium, all restaurants, bars and gyms have been ordered to close.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday banned all indoor gatherings of 100 or more people. Even St Patrick's Day parades have been axed.
"It’s going to involve big changes in the way we live our lives," Varadkar said. "And I know I’m asking people to make enormous sacrifices. But we’re doing it for each other."
One country isn't following the crowd, however. As the rest of Europe gradually switches off its economy and large parts of society, the British government has resisted enacting any so-called social distancing measures. If anything, Prime Minister Boris Johnson
has condemned them as counter-productive.
calls the virus the "worst public health crisis for a generation" and admits it will spread to all corners of Britain. But armed with reams of modelling and relying heavily on the advice of his chief medical and science officers, he is holding his nerve on when to clamp down.
The plan is to essentially wait until the crisis worsens before implementing social distancing. Officials believe the peak of the emergency is still up to 14 weeks away and say behavioural science modelling shows the public will get sick of draconian measures if they are implemented too early.
"If you start too early and then people's enthusiasm [to comply with the measures] runs out just at the peak, which is exactly the time we want people to be complying with these interventions, that is actually not a productive way to do it," says England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty.
For now, the British government is urging all people with flu-like symptoms to stay at home for seven days and if possible, away from family members. Most will not be offered testing for coronavirus.
Britain's chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance says asking people with mild symptoms to self-isolate could reduce the peak of the pandemic by 20 to 25 per cent, and asking whole households to self-isolate could achieve a further reduction of 25 per cent. On top of that, eventually limiting the general population's access to the elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions could lower the eventual death rate by 20 to 30 per cent.
"Those are the three most important measures to take," Vallance told reporters in Downing Street. "It doesn't mean other things don't have additional effects as well, but those are the ones which have the biggest effect and therefore they need to come in first."
He also says closing schools would have minimal impact and classes would have to be suspended for up to four months to make any material difference to the rate of spread.
In a line graph form, Italy's outbreak will ultimately resemble an upside down capital 'U'. This curve means the pandemic may pass more quickly but the impact on the health system of such a massive short-term caseload is severe.
The British government says its strategy will flatten that curve and spread out the infections out over a longer period - Johnson
calls it "squashing the sombrero". The social distancing measures put in place by other countries should achieve the same effect but Britain's plan is using different techniques to achieve it.
Not everyone is convinced. Former British health secretary Jeremy Hunt - Johnson
's opponent in last year's Conservative leadership contest - says he is "concerned" only four weeks remain before Britain finds itself in the same situation as Italy and "what we do every single day of those four weeks is absolutely critical".
"The point of taking drastic measures is to slow the onslaught on the National Health Service. If five per cent of the population gets the virus and five per cent of those people need an intensive care bed, that's over 150,000 people who will need intensive care and we only have 4000 beds."
is holding firm and even took a swipe at other countries for a need to "be seen to act" which means they "may do things that are not necessarily dictated by the science".
The contrast with the rest of Europe couldn't be sharper - and the stakes could not be higher if Johnson
and his team have gambled on the wrong strategy.