LONDON — The British government on Wednesday defended its strategy for combating a second wave of COVID-19 cases amid criticism that its new slate of restrictions will not be enough to stop coronavirus from spreading exponentially.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled the new rules — including a 10 p.m. curfew on bars and restaurants, increased use of face masks and once again encouraging people to work from home — in a televised address Tuesday night.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC that the government’s approach was proportionate and enough to slow the spread of the virus as long as everyone complies with the rules.
“I think that it’s a balanced approach, it’s a targeted approach and, actually, one that can make sure that we preserve the health gains that we’ve made, prevent the virus expanding exponentially, but also keep businesses, livelihoods and society open,” Raab said.
Yet many health experts said they did not think the government’s plan would be sufficient to stop the country’s rapid rise in new COVID-19 infections. The government’s top medical advisers warned this week that new cases were doubling every seven days. They said that could lead to nearly 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October and 200 deaths a day by early November if nothing was done to slow transmission of the virus.
John Edmunds, the dean of epidemiology and population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the measures announced Tuesday are very limited and won’t be enough to get the virus back under control. He compared it to the nationwide lockdown imposed in March that closed most businesses and forced most people to stay home.
“We will have let the epidemic double and double and double again” until we take those broader measures, Edmunds told the BBC. “And then we’ll have the worst of both worlds, because then to slow the epidemic and bring it back down again … will mean putting the breaks on the epidemic for a very long time, very hard.”
The other nations in the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — also tightened restrictions Tuesday, going further than England in some cases.
The new restrictions touched off further worry about the fate of Britain’s economy, as previous furlough measures meant to protect jobs are due to expire. The prime minister told the House of Commons on Wednesday that the government will introduce “further creative and imaginative schemes to keep our economy moving.”
Treasury chief Rishi Sunak plans to update lawmakers Thursday on plans “to continue protecting jobs through the winter.”
Case numbers continued to climb. The U.K. government said Wednesday it had recorded 6,178 new confirmed coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, one of the highest daily totals since the pandemic began.
“We are testing much more than we were earlier on in the outbreak and our local health protection teams are working with local councils and directors of public health to manage the increase,” said Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England.
Many scientists fear another round of the outbreak’s earlier path, when the virus spread swiftly through the country, hitting nursing homes hard. The U.K. has reported 41,825 people dying within 28 days of testing positive, Europe’s highest death toll, but experts say all such numbers undercount the true impact of the pandemic due to limited testing and missed cases.
“I think we haven’t learned from our mistake back then and we’re, unfortunately, about to repeat it,” Edmunds said.