Coronavirus: UK set to ban mass gatherings as 10 more deaths recorded

World Health Organisation questions Britain’s ‘herd immunity’ approach to virus

Travellers at Kings Cross rail station in London on Friday, March 13th, 2020. Photograph: Andrew Testa/The New York Times

Health authorities in England announced on Saturday a further 10 deaths caused by coronavirus, almost doubling the number of fatalities in Britain since Friday.

“I am sorry to confirm 10 further patients who have tested positive for Covid-19 in England have died,” Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said in a statement. “All 10 individuals were in the at-risk groups.”

As of Saturday, 21 people had died after testing positive for the illness, also known as Covid-19, in Britain.

Britain’s government will introduce emergency laws next week to ban mass gatherings in an attempt to curb the coronavirus outbreak, an escalation of its crisis plan which critics had said was too relaxed.

British prime minister Boris Johnson speaks during a news conference inside 10 Downing Street in London, March 12th 2020. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Prime minister Boris Johnson has so far resisted pressure to take some of the stringent measures adopted by other European countries to slow the spread of the virus.

But on Friday, England’s soccer Premier League suspended all matches until April 4th and other events such as the London Marathon were postponed by their organisers.

“We have drafted emergency legislation to give the government the powers it needs to deal with coronavirus, including powers to stop mass gatherings and compensate organisations,” a government source said.

“We will publish this legislation next week.”

British media said the ban on mass gatherings could come into force from next weekend and could affect events such as the Glastonbury music festival, the Wimbledon tennis championships and the Grand National horse race.

The UK’s approach to developing “ herd immunity” against Covid-19 has been called into question by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris said not enough is known about the science of the coronavirus, and that while “theories” can be talked about, the current situation requires “action”.

Meanwhile, the National Education Union has written to Mr Johnson urging him to give a clear explanation on why he has not ordered school closures as part of the effort to combat the illness.

A woman wearing a face mask mask in Oxford Street in London. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

“Every day we are getting increasing numbers of questions from teachers and support staff asking why the Westminster government isn’t following the pattern of other countries in calling for periods of school closure,” the letter says.

“Those questions are increasingly asking why schools aren’t closing if mass gatherings are to be suspended.”

The letter, signed by joint general secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, asks Mr Johnson for clearer guidance on school closures, and disclosure of the medical and scientific advice the British government is using.


Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus cases imported into mainland China from overseas surpassed the number of locally transmitted new infections for the first time on Friday, data released by the National Health Commission showed on Saturday.

Mainland China had 11 new confirmed cases on Friday, up from eight cases a day earlier, but only four of those - all in the virus epicentre of Hubei province - were locally transmitted.

The other seven - including four in the financial hub of Shanghai, one in the capital Beijing and two in the northwestern province of Gansu - were all detected in travellers coming into China from overseas, specifically Italy, the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Later on Saturday, Shanghai's city government confirmed a further two imported cases in travellers from France and Spain.

The numbers underscore how China, where the outbreak began in December, appears to now face a greater threat of new infections from outside its borders as it continues to slow the spread of the virus domestically.

A total of 95 cases have entered mainland China from overseas by the end of Friday, the commission said.

Hubei has now seen new infections fall for nine straight days. All four new cases on Friday were in provincial capital Wuhan.

The death toll in mainland China had reached 3,189 by the end of Friday, up by 13 from the previous day. All the latest deaths were in Hubei and 10 were in Wuhan.

The virus has infected 80,824 people in mainland China, the commission said. Globally, more than 138,000 have been infected and over 5,000 have died, according to a Reuters tally.

Severe measures

Countries across the world have implemented increasingly severe measures to halt the spread, including closing borders and schools.

New Zealand announced all incoming passengers, including it own citizens, will be required to isolate themselves for 14 days, with few exceptions.

New Zealand's new measures, which prime minister Jacinda Ardern called some of the toughest border restrictions in the world, go into effect on Monday.

The only countries exempt from the restrictions are a handful of Pacific islands which have not had any cases of Covid-19.

In the US, which reported its 50th death from the outbreak on Friday, president Donald Trump said the new emergency decree will open up $50 billion (€44.9 billion) for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak.

“We will defeat this threat,” Mr Trump told a news conference. “When America is tested, America rises to the occasion.”

The head of the World Health Organisation said Europe is now the "epicentre of the pandemic".

The government of the Czech Republic made a middle-of-the-night announcement ordering retail businesses including shopping malls to close from Saturday morning.

The exceptions include those providing essential services such as supermarkets, petrol stations and pharmacies.

New infections also rose sharply in Spain, and the government put 60,000 people in four towns on a mandatory lockdown on Friday that echoed the situation in Italy. The country is planning a nationwide lockdown from 8am on Monday, according to a draft of an official decree.-Reuters/AP