Skip to Content
Biotechnology

The UK could face a year of social distancing

The UK government has just released the scientific advice that’s been shaping its response to the coronavirus pandemic.
March 20, 2020
UK prime minister Boris Johnson
UK prime minister Boris Johnson
UK prime minister Boris JohnsonAssociated Press

What’s happened: The UK government has just released the scientific advice that’s been shaping its response to the coronavirus pandemic. It comprises over 30 documents, including academic papers and the influential Imperial College London modeling that led to a dramatic change in strategy this week, from mitigating the disease to trying to suppress its spread. You can pore through them yourself.

This story is part of our ongoing coverage of the coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak, which is available free of charge. You can also sign up to our dedicated newsletter.

The news:

  • The consensus is that the UK may need to alternate between more and less strict social distancing measures for at least “most of a year” in order to stop its health system from being overwhelmed. This means varying between general social distancing and school closures and a strategy of isolating particular cases, households, or vulnerable groups. Today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that all pubs, clubs, and restaurants are ordered to close from tonight.
  • The estimate is that 8% of all those infected will be hospitalized. The risk varies by age: under 2% of under-50s are predicted to end up in the hospital, versus 44% of those over 80.
  • If the UK follows China’s pattern, it may be three to five months until cases peak, and it is possible that up to 80% of the population could be affected.
  • The advisors predict that school closures will be “highly disruptive” and pose unequal burdens on families. “Our understanding of reports from Japan is that there is growing discontent around the policy,” one of the documents says.
  • There is a lot of uncertainty in the documents, as in the wider scientific community, because so much about the virus remains unknown.

Some good news:

  • The advisors think large-scale rioting is “unlikely” and, somewhat touchingly, predict that “acts of altruism will predominate.”
  • To reduce the risk of public unrest, the government needs to provide clear and transparent reasons for different strategies, set clear expectations on how the response will develop, and promote a sense of collectivism, one of the documents says.

Mixed messages: The advice that the UK may face 12 months of restrictions was published just a day after Johnson said, during one of his now-daily live press conferences, that the country could “turn the tide” on the outbreak within 12 weeks. However, health secretary Matt Hancock has stressed that the 12-week prediction assumes people will follow advice to avoid unnecessary trips beyond the home and distance themselves from others.

An omission: The documents contain virtual nothing on testing. Testing all suspected cases has been a central plank of the strategy for countries that have more successfully contained the virus, like South Korea, Japan, and Singapore. The UK is routinely testing people only in hospitals and is not actively tracking people who have come into contact with known cases. The government has promised to ramp up testing to 25,000 a day within four weeks.

Deep Dive

Biotechnology

transplant surgery
transplant surgery

The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus

The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.

Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research
Muhammad bin Salman funds anti-aging research

Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging

The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.