Travellers are returning home in droves. Grocery stores are looking as though they’ve been ransacked. Frantic conversations are being had about friends who are feeling under the weather, displaying several of the symptoms.

I’m still on exchange abroad for now, at the University of Suffolk, in Ipswich, United Kingdom. I’m surely one of the last standing, but how much longer will it be until my hand is forced? It’s only due to my plans to stay in Europe after my exchange that I’m still here at all. A global pandemic, perhaps the worst since the Spanish Flu, is wreaking havoc. 

The spread of COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus, has only just begun in the United Kingdom, and in a move that is a stark contrast to virtually every other European country, schools have remained open. It’s a staggering gamble to employ a strategy described as “herd immunity,” wherein much of the population becomes infected, in this case, an estimated 60 percent, eventually slowing the spread of the virus as those infected gain a natural immunity. 

After much backlash, which included pushback from scientists and medical professionals as well as the World Health Organization, the UK government has backed off and suggested that people over the age of 70 should self-isolate in the coming weeks. 

The lack of action in preventing the spread of the virus, especially when compared to other countries, reveals that the idea of herd immunity is still central to UK leaderships’ plan to combat what Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called “the worst public health crisis for a generation.” It’s the sort of shocking phrase that makes you wonder why Johnson isn’t acting in a fashion befitting such a crisis.

What would be the cost of continued inaction? If 60 percent of the population were infected it would mean hundreds of thousands of deaths. This is using a mortality rate of only 0.5 percent, which most experts agree is a good estimate, if not slightly low. Any argument that says that you could restrict infections to low-risk groups is laughable; think of nursing homes, for one example.

All this is without yet mentioning the shortage of hospital beds in the UK. Any scenario where such a significant portion of the population were to become infected would cripple the National Health Service (NHS). Doctors would be, without exaggeration, forced to choose who lives and who dies, as they already are having to in Italy, Europe’s worst affected country.

The University of Suffolk in Ipswich, United Kingdom | Photo by Jack Sparks

The National Education Union, the largest of its kind in the UK, has written a letter to the Prime Minister that asks for explanation on his decision not to close schools, and also describes concerns about the UK’s response to the pandemic. Perhaps UK leadership will be forced to take action in the coming days, but for now they are content to chide the few universities which have chosen to close, with Johnson saying that this could do “more harm than good.”

The harm that Johnson refers to includes a variety of risks that come with closing schools: NHS workers having to stay home to care for their children could further cripple the healthcare system and the elderly population may also be asked to help look after their grandchildren and become exposed. Another factor that is undoubtedly weighing in on the decision to keep schools open is the prediction that closures of any sustained period would cost billions of pounds. 

The UK’s outlier strategy may prove to be the correct one, but right now it looks like a disregard of the terrifying speed with which other countries have been overwhelmed by the virus and a misplaced concern for the economy when citizens’ lives are at risk. I sincerely hope I’m wrong in doubting their plan of action. 

It’s a rather depressing state of events on the ground in Ipswich. Friends are being called back to Canada, their first big experience abroad cut short; new friends are travelling home on advice from their universities or their parents; the crowds on the streets thin as more people begin to stay at home. It’s an occasion that must be risen to, not shrunk from, if not for ourselves than for our elderly and those with underlying health problems.

My home country of Canada has looked as though they are taking the worldwide pandemic incredibly seriously, even with far fewer confirmed cases: closing many schools, shutting down parliament, and limiting which airports can receive international flights in order to enact enhanced screening of travellers. 

Across the ocean in the United Kingdom, I’m going to class tomorrow.