The United Kingdom prepares for Coronavirus

As the Coronavirus pandemic spreads here is an insight on the day to day situation on the British Isles.

Education

The British prime minister Boris Johnson has announced the closure of the country's schools, two days after he announced previous measures for slowing down the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic across the country. However schools for children with special family, mental health or educational needs will be allowed to stay open. Children of parents working in essential public services such as medical staff, the police and supermarket delivery services will also be allowed to go to school. It is not yet clear how this selective policy will work in practice. Unlike many European countries the UK depends heavily on privately owned schools, many of them with boarding facilities for overseas students. Their closure will add not just to the burden of families trying to juggle their work schedules but also to these private businesses themselves. Many of the private schools, particularly those with students from abroad, will be worried about their income stream from fees and how to reimburse parents for three months' less of schooling. The summer term usually ends at the beginning of July.

Vital exams (GCSEs and A-levels) for students either continuing their education to the higher secondary level or to university have also been cancelled. Little guidance has yet been given as to knock-on effect this will have for university entrance in the autumn. 

Health

One hotel chain, Best Western, has announced it will offer beds to the National Health Service, probably for patients convalescing and those who need some form of isolation but who are not ill. The Suzhou Centre for Advanced Research, a molecular science group at Oxford University, has developed a new system to speed Covid-19 testing. At present the tests in the UK take at best 24 hours and usually several days. The NHS has not been offering testing unless patients have undeniable symptoms and even NHS staff have had difficulty getting their own tests. The NHS is reported to be heavily reliant for swabs on an Italian company, Copan Diagnostics, in Brescia one of the worst hit areas of northern Italy. The new Oxford system is much simpler and faster. It does not require a complicated instrument for nasal swabs and results are available in 30 minutes. Testing could therefore be done in community centres and at home. At present testing is still being performed in hospitals, in specially designated areas.

A consortium of aerospace and car producers, led by Meggitt which makes oxygen systems of aircraft, Nissan and McLaren, has been formed to rush through the design of a basic ventilator in a week, with promises that the necessary procedures for safety certificates, which usually take months to acquire, will be speeded up. Production could start within a month, with a target of 5,000 ventilators immediately and another 30,000 subsequently.

London

40 stations on the London underground system are scheduled to close, partly to ensure that people stay at home but also because of the fears of staff shortages. Almost all the media are carrying stories of the planned lockdown of London on Friday. London at present is the worst hit area of the country with a third of the known Covid-19 cases. To date there are 900 confirmed cases in London and 34 deaths, out of a countrywide total of 2,626 confirmed cases and 104 deaths.

Telecommunications

British Telecoms announced a few days ago that there were no foreseen problems with the country's telecommunications systems now under stress from tele-conferencing by home workers and a growing demand for streaming facilities. However telecommunications in some parts of the country, especially in the southwest, were already notoriously bad before the Covid-19 crisis and it was one of the prime minister's election promises to bring efficient broadband to the whole country. Demand on an already weak system will now increase as schools shut and work from home increases. Signs from Europe indicate that there maybe trouble ahead. Spain says its system, where demand has increased by 40 per cent. is under stress. The EU's French commissioner, Thierry Breton, has said that streaming platforms and telecommunications companies have a responsibility to guarantee the smooth functioning of the system. Facebook has indicated that it is struggling to cope with unexpected surges in traffic on its WhatApp and messaging services. In the UK two internet providers Vodafone and TalkTalk are reporting up to 30 per cent increases in traffic this week. Peak hours, which are normally 18.00-20.00, now begin at 12.00.

Covid Support Force

The British armed forces have organised a special group of some 20,000 military personnel to help the NHS in auxiliary duties and to drive oxygen supply trucks. It is not expected that they will be use as a security task force on the streets.