UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday admitted the new coronavirus was in a phase of rapid spread across the UK and called for increased social distancing such as staying away from pubs and clubs – but stopped short of an enforced lockdown, except for people over 70.
He also advised entire families to self-quarantine if one member falls ill with the Covid-19 disease.
Although Johnson’s tone is changing, the measures announced were still far behind those now being enacted in other European countries.
A few miles east from Westminster, in the East London district of Whitechapel, in normal times the first day of warm sunshine after months of grey and wet would be greeted with joy, the pubs bustling with revellers spilling onto the streets.
But on Monday, only the birds could be heard singing – louder than normal because of the absence of the usual roar of planes landing at the nearby London City Airport. A sense of anxiety was hanging over this part of the city, like elsewhere. People were still going to work, some nervously looking at their phones. For the first time, people of East Asian descent were not the only ones wearing face masks.
The area, a traditional cockney heartland, was once a refuge for Jewish refugees escaping the pogroms. They were replaced 50 years ago by Bangladeshis.
It also has a sizeable Somali community, with some old generation Hongkongers, Caribbeans and Maltese.
More recently it has become popular with hipsters, Italians, Spanish, health workers from the Royal London Hospital (where one of the country’s first coronavirus cases was detected), and Chinese students from Queen Mary’s College.
As of Monday, 55 deaths and 1,543 cases had been reported in the UK – 400 of those testing positive were in London. Now, only those hospitalised are being tested.
“It’s now clear that the peak of the epidemic is coming faster in some parts of the country than in others,” said Johnson. “And it looks as though London is now a few weeks ahead.”
He said cases could “double every five or six days”.
His comments came amid growing criticism of the UK government’s response, which has looked increasingly out of step with that from around the globe.
While other countries in Europe have shut schools and ordered citizens to stay at home, the UK has focused on urging the public to wash hands regularly and isolate themselves if they become ill. Johnson and his ministers have defended the approach, saying it is based on the best available scientific advice.
The area is home to thousands of gig economy workers, and has the highest child poverty rate in the country. It could pay a high cost if Johnson’s health and economic strategy fails.
At the local library, staff have set up a stand with recommended reads with titles like How Not to Die and Staying Alive and a copy of the seminal 2007 book Affluenza about the psychological malaise supposedly affecting wealthy young people.
Next door to the library there is a huge Sainsbury’s supermarket store, one of the biggest in London.
A few hours before Johnson’s statement, crowds jostled dangerously close to each other, to grab what was left. Although the numbers were not as great as the panic buying spree over the weekend, the store was still as busy as Christmas Eve, and many of its shelves were stripped bare. There were no toilet rolls, no cleaning material, nor meat or poultry.
“I just bought yeast, I’ve got flour, if the worst comes to the worst I’m a good cook, said a middle-aged black woman. “There is always going to be fruit and veg,” said another woman.
“They are buying anything. We came for toothpaste. Look there is nothing left. It’s greed, that’s what it is.”
A Bangladeshi man said: “They don’t understand, what good will this do. Bangladesh is doing a better job than this country at stopping corona.”
It was at the brand new building of the Royal London Hospital, one of the best equipped in the country, that one of the city’s first Covid-19 cases was found.
It was in this area that London’s last major epidemic occurred, an outbreak of cholera in 1866, killed nearly 6,000 people.
Eastwards down Mile End Road to Stepney Green at the local Bangladeshi wholesalers Rahims it was the same story as Sainsbury’s: lots of panic buying.
Usually piled high with large sacks of rice, the shop had been emptied of staples, even though one of the firm’s vans had arrived with a resupply.
Many of Rahim’s customers are Uber drivers and Indian restaurant workers, all on the front line of losing jobs if the economy tanks. Bangladeshi families tend to be large, with elderly grandparents and young children all living together in crowded conditions. The potential for an explosion of cases is frightening.
Outside, the street was piled with bags of rubbish. There is an ongoing strike by the staff of Franco-Israeli firm Veolia,
subcontracted by the local council to collect the rubbish, because they want holiday pay. Bins piled high add to the depressing feel, but the Veolia workers, many of them migrants, are among those most likely to be hit by the spread of Covid-19.
Back towards the London Hospital at the China Ark supermarket, two of the customers, Serina and Spencer, two 20-something students from Beijing, were gathering up empty boxes.
“We are shocked at what the government here is doing. We think they don’t have access to the right scientific advice,” Serena said.
They are engineering management students at London’s Imperial College, and hope to return to China. “We are scared, we don’t feel safe.”
They did not give their full names.
Researchers from Imperial College said that based on the way the pandemic was developing in Italy there could be up to 260,000 deaths in the UK, with the country’s gutted National Health Service (NHS) under so much pressure. This estimation would be based on the government’s previous strategy of allowing the population to develop “herd immunity” by exposing it to the virus - a risky endeavour widely criticised because it has not been scientifically proven.
An official government document suggested as many as 8 million people in England could be hospitalised at the peak of the outbreak.
That is just a “reasonable worst case scenario,” Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said.
“It’s sad what is happening here,” 29-year-old Hongkonger Wu Fai-tat said while having a coffee outside the 100-year old Rinkoffs bakery.
“I just got sacked.”
Wu has been in the UK on a temporary work visa and wanted to get experience in the hospitality industry. But the plush bar he worked for in Mayfair let him go.
“They said I had been rude to a customer, but it wasn’t true … They got rid of some Italians. They want to get rid of staff.”
Taking some masks from his pocket, he said he wanted to book a return flight to Hong Kong.
“He stole them from me,” joked his friend Chin Chin-pat, 27, also from Hong Kong.
Pat and her friend Li Yuk-man, 25, work in Harrods, where they have been given longer shifts but more days off as part of new coronavirus working arrangements.
Li asked if it was true what she had read on a Chinese chat group that a mass grave was being dug in Hyde Park.
“I’m not enjoying it here, sorry,” said Pat. “In the past year someone stole my things, I lost my passport, I lost my credit card, I lost my laptop. The police didn’t help.”
“Now if I get ill what do I do? You can’t go to the GP. You can’t get a test, Who do I call? Do I just stay all alone with no food?”
As she spoke, questions were being asked in the UK Parliament. Former prime minister Theresa May reminded Health Secretary Matt Hancock of the World Health Organisation’s advice to “test, test, test”.
“On the NHS frontline they don’t have the protective equipment that they need – nor do they have the capacity to manage the spread of infection in their own departments,” said Rosena Allin-Khan, a candidate for the Labour Party’s deputy leadership, who also works as an emergency doctor.
She asked Hancock if Covid-19 testing would be available for NHS staff who show symptoms.
“We want as much staff testing as soon as possible. We’re using the testing capacity we have to save lives and saving lives includes saving lives of the medics,” Hancock said.
Meanwhile, as the invisible enemy grew larger, citizens were trying to organise. In local cyberspace, on the local site of the Nextdoor website that links people in communities, people were offering to set up self-help groups for elderly people who are being told to self-isolate, in case they need supplies, or to walk dogs.
Someone offered babysitting services in anticipation that the schools would soon close.
But Francesco Dias from Portugal was sending out an alert about “a gang of people going house to house pretending to be doing testing for Covid-19 with the intent to break in. We were told not to open the door and let them know we are calling the police”.
But will the police have the time or the resources to answer?
It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves