A sobering Covid-19 study prompted Britain to shut down social life in the country and ordered the most vulnerable to isolate for 12 weeks, ramping up the battle against the coronavirus outbreak as it accelerates towards its peak.

People, some wearing protective face masks, walk over London Bridge in London, Britain as the coronavirus pandemic expands worldwide. March 16, 2020.
People, some wearing protective face masks, walk over London Bridge in London, Britain as the coronavirus pandemic expands worldwide. March 16, 2020. (Reuters)

A crucial projection study that helped convince the British government to impose more stringent measures to contain Covid-19 painted a worst-case picture of hundreds of thousands of deaths and a health service overwhelmed with severely sick patients.

In a sharp toughening of Britain's approach to the outbreak on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson closed down social life in the world's fifth-largest economy and advised those over 70 with underlying health problems to isolate for 12 weeks.

Johnson set up four new committees on Tuesday to help respond to a growing coronavirus outbreak, focusing on health, public sector preparedness, the economy and the international response to the pandemic.

Britain hopes the measures it has taken to tackle coronavirus mean it will have below 20,000 deaths from the outbreak, the government's chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said on Tuesday.

Vallance said the impact of the measures on the number of infections should be seen in two to three weeks. 

Based on the modelling being used by the government, it is a "reasonable ballpark" that Britain actually has around 55,000 cases of the virus, compared to the number confirmed by testing, he said.

He told a committee of lawmakers when asked about deaths: "If we can get this down to 20,000 and below, that is a good outcome in terms of where we would hope to get to with this outbreak. It is still horrible, it is still an enormous number of deaths and it is an enormous pressure on the health service."

British cases of coronavirus rose 26 percent to 1,950 on Tuesday from 1,543 the day before, the health ministry said. There have so far been 56 reported deaths.

"As of 9am on 17 March 2020, 50,442 people have been tested in the UK, of which 48,492 were confirmed negative and 1,950 were confirmed as positive," the ministry said.

Modelling study used Italy data

The crucial modelling study which prompted the government's u-turn was by a team led by Neil Ferguson, a professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London. The model used new data gathered from Italy where the infectious disease epidemic has surged in recent weeks.

Comparing the potential impact of the Covid-19 disease epidemic with the devastating flu outbreak of 1918, Ferguson's team said that with no mitigating measures at all, the outbreak could have caused more than half a million deaths in Britain and 2.2 million in the United States.

Even with the government's previous plan to control the outbreak –– which involved home isolation of suspect cases but did not include restrictions on wider society –– could have resulted in 250,000 people dying "and health systems ...being overwhelmed many times over," the study said.

With the measures outlined - including extreme social distancing and advice to avoid clubs, pubs and theatres - the epidemic's curve and peak could be flattened, the scientists said.

"This is going to place huge pressure on us as a society, and economically," said Azra Ghani, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial who co-led the work with Ferguson.

'Tough times ahead'

Tim Colbourn, an expert in global health epidemiology at University College London said the projections in the study signalled "tough times ahead".

"The results are sobering," he said.

This study helped change the British government's position, according to those involved with the decision. The government said it had accelerated its plans on "the advice of the experts" and that the new measures had always been "part of the government's action plan".

"We continue to follow the science and act on the advice of the experts, which is that we are bringing in these more substantial measures slightly faster than we originally planned," the source said.

Johnson's government had been criticised by some public health experts who were concerned that Britain was not acting fast or forcefully enough to contain the spread of Covid-19 while other countries such as Italy, Spain and France were taking far more draconian lock-down measures.

But Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and a specialist in viruses and infectious disease epidemics, said Britain's approach "is solidly evidence-informed" and "strikes a sound balance between managing the current public health crisis as well as the multiple and complex societal implications."

"In this unprecedented pandemic, caused by a virus we still know so little about, there is no one size fits all approach to controlling it," Piot said. "We should be open to adapt the response to an ever-changing epidemic, and to rapidly evolving scientific understanding."

UK cinemas close their doors

Leading British cinema chains began shutting their venues on Tuesday in response to the latest guidance on how to try to control the spread of the virus.

Cineworld, Britain's biggest cinema operator, said it was closing until further notice all its theatres in the UK from Wednesday and in Ireland from Tuesday.

Shares in Cineworld, which has also closed its more than 500 Regal Cinemas in the US, plunged a further 27 percent to 27.70 pence by 1330 GMT.

The company, which also operates the Picturehouse brand and has around 120 cinemas in Britain and Ireland, warned last week that it could fail to meet its debt commitments in a worst-case coronavirus scenario including a lengthy closure of its cinemas.

Privately owned Vue, which has 91 cinemas in the UK and Ireland, also said it was closing its doors for the time being.

It was the same story for AIM-listed Everyman Media Group , a relatively small player operating 33 cinemas.

Source: Reuters