With London scrambling to ramp up its response to the coronavirus outbreak this week amid a rapid increase in cases and deaths, Spaniards and Italians in the UK have been looking to their home countries and wondering why Britain isn’t following suit.
As the reality of the COVID-19 crisis became apparent in western Europe, where healthcare systems are overwhelmed and deaths have overtaken China — where the outbreak began — Italy, Spain and France all implemented lockdowns.
Non-essential businesses were shut, people were ordered to work from home, and fines were implemented for people breaking quarantine rules. Meanwhile in the UK this week, pubs, restaurants, shops and schools remained open.
The failure of the UK to follow the example of its neighbours in implementing strict measures to halt the spread of a disease that has now infected more than 240,000 people worldwide has left many puzzled.
“I’m afraid of catching this virus and that nobody will do anything about it,” Irene Araque, a Spaniard who has been working in the aviation sector, told Euronews earlier this week.
She worries the lack of strict measures in the UK could lead to a bigger health crisis than the ones being experienced in Italy and Spain, which collectively have more than 4,000 deaths confirmed. ”I’m afraid I’ll be caught here when there’s no solution and I can’t go anywhere and the country can’t even look after me.”
UK warned of ‘catastrophic epidemic’
The UK has now changed tack in the face of a stark report from Imperial College that showed a quarter of a million people could die in a “catastrophic epidemic” in the country, if steps weren’t taken to halt the spread of the disease.
It had initially suggested it was, in part, opting for a “herd immunity” approach, where around 60% of the population would become infected in order to build up immunity, which in turn would protect the more vulnerable from catching the illness.
This theory was criticised by several members of the British scientific community, such as the epidemiologist William Hanage.
“This is not a vaccine,” he wrote in The Guardian. “This is a real pandemic that will make large numbers of people sick, and some of them will die.”
Most schools are now to be closed from Friday 20 March, however non-essential businesses remain open.
‘It has to come from the government’
“They should be closing businesses that aren’t necessary,” says Gustavo, a Spanish sommelier who has lived in London for more than 10 years. Despite working in hospitality, a sector that is being massively damaged by the pandemic, he says he understands the need for stricter measures, calling the UK government’s response “weak”.
“As of the beginning of this week they should have closed pubs, coffee shops, restaurants. They should be putting a lot of money into those businesses to help them. If they had done that we would probably be in a better position. It has to come from the government.”
Gustavo, who is voluntarily self-isolating to reduce risk to others, is in frequent contact with friends and family back in Madrid. There, hospitals have become overwhelmed as COVID-19 cases shot up through this week.
“We don’t know what point we are at in the UK. Who can tell if it will get as bad as in Spain?” he adds.
An Italian living in the UK, Marta, told Euronews earlier this week: “I am a flight attendant and despite the rapid spread of COVID-19, I still work and am in contact with lots of people every day.”
When the Italian government decided to quarantine the whole country, it thought the UK would follow suit.
“But no, after Boris’ speech (on Monday) I feel even more at risk,” she added. “I’m stuck here, far away from my loved ones and not being able to embrace them breaks my heart.”
Valentina Morandini, also Italian, has been living in London for three years. She does not trust either the capacity of the British health system to deal with the crisis or the direction taken by the Johnson government and has also voluntarily decided to restrict her social interactions. “Since the state does not care, we have to care”, she explains, adding that if quarantine is not imposed “as everyone else has done, it will end up in natural selection”.
As of Thursday there were more than 2,700 cases confirmed in the UK, and 137 deaths – although the UK is testing so few people the real number of cases is likely to be orders of magnitude higher.