The United Kingdom has sent in its army to deliver protective equipment to hospitals and told people to stay at home and heed warnings over social distancing – or the government will bring in more extreme measures to stop the coronavirus spread.
With some doctors saying they felt like “cannon fodder”, the government on Monday said the military would help ship millions of items of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, to healthcare workers who have complained of shortages.
So far, 281 Britons have died from coronavirus and, in the past few days, British authorities have rapidly stepped up action to try to limit the spread of the disease and prevent a repeat of the death toll seen in other countries where thousands have died.
However, there have been complaints from frontline medical staff about shortages of kit, saying they did not feel safe at work. In a letter pleading with Prime Minister Boris Johnson to increase PPE supplies, more than 6,000 doctors said they were being asked to put their lives at risk with out-of-date masks, and low stocks of equipment.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted there had been issues but promised action was being taken. He said the army would drive trucks throughout the day and night to get supplies to medical staff.
“It’s like a war effort, it is a war against this virus and so the army have been incredibly helpful in getting those logistics so we can get the supplies to protect people on the frontline,” he told the BBC, saying the health service now had 12,000 ventilators, 7,000 more than at the start of the crisis.
“It seems very clear that there’s a correlation between where Italy was a couple of weeks ago and where the UK is right now, in terms of numbers of cases and numbers of deaths,” said Al Jazeera’s Nadim Baba, reporting from central London.
“And on social media there is no shortage of National Health Service staff saying ‘we are urging you to stay indoors, precisely because we’re seeing what’s happened in ICUs in Italy, where beds are running out, where they are having to decide who can have a ventilator to save their life and who can’t – and they are really, really worried.
“They are also saying they don’t have enough protective equipment. Some doctors and nurses are having to turn up to work in things they have had to buy themselves in hardware stores – even bin liners in some cases. The health secretary says he’s getting on top of that problem, but the health service is really begging people to take this seriously.
“They are saying that this tsunami, a wave of thousands of cases, is just around the corner, and even if we moderate our behaviour now, it’s going to get worse and worse.”
The UK has brought in a series of measures to try to curb the spread of the virus.
On Monday, much-reduced rail services were introduced and jury trials were suspended, days after Johnson advised Britons to work from home if possible and ordered the closure of pubs, gyms and leisure centres.
We have experienced the busiest visitor day in living memory. The area has been overwhelmed with visitors
But advice to stay at home and avoid social gatherings went unheeded by millions at the weekend who took advantage of sunny weather and flocked to parks and beauty spots, ignoring instructions to stay two metres (six feet) apart.
Emyr Williams, chief executive of the Snowdonia National Park Authority in Wales, said the past 24 hours had been unprecedented.
“We have experienced the busiest visitor day in living memory. The area has been overwhelmed with visitors,” he said.
The government warned the UK would face a shutdown with curfews and travel restrictions if people continued to flout the advice.
Some firms have already acted because of slowing demand, with clothing retailer Primark and department store John Lewis saying on Monday they would temporarily close all of their shops. Shoemender and key-cutters Timpsons said it would shutter more than 2,000 outlets, but would continue to pay staff their full wages during the shutdown.
It comes as the UK opened the first part of a 330 billion pound ($384bn) loan guarantee scheme for businesses, which will help small and medium-sized firms borrow up to five million pounds ($5.8m) to deal with coronavirus stoppages.