UK departs from Europe in virus response, draws criticism

Full Screen
1 / 9

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

A man covers his face with a football scarf as he waits at a tube station in London, Friday, March 13, 2020. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

LONDON – The United Kingdom stood increasingly apart Friday as countries across Europe and around the world shut schools and universities, scrapped sports tournaments and shuttered bars and restaurants in response to the new coronavirus.

The British government has not restricted the everyday activities of U.K. residents by banning large public gatherings or suspending transit networks. More than 60,000 horse-racing fans packed a course in England on Friday for the final day of the Cheltenham Festival, one of the few sporting events in Europe still taking place.

Pupils in Northern Ireland attended classes as usual at St. Columban’s primary school in the village of Belcoo. Yet a little more than 2 miles (3.2 km) away, across the border in the Irish Republic, the local St. Patrick's school was closed. So was every other school and all the colleges, daycare centers and cultural institutions in Ireland.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has described the worldwide pandemic as “the worst public health crisis for a generation.” He warned Thursday that “many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”

Yet U.K. authorities have not introduced the strict “social distancing” measures adopted by neighboring nations. Britons are being urged to wash hands frequently and asked to stay home for a week if they have a persistent cough or a fever.

As of Friday, the U.K. had 798 confirmed cases of the new virus, an increase of more than 200 from a day earlier. Ten people have died.

Britain’s strategy is based on the presumption that most people in the country will eventually get the virus, and severe measures to contain it are unlikely to work.

Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said the U.K. was “about four weeks or so behind Italy,” where more than 15,000 infections and more than 1,000 deaths were recorded in only three weeks.