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Editor's Viewpoint

Managing public concern a test for our Governments

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street (PA)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street (PA)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking at a media briefing in Downing Street (PA)

It was like a scene from a disaster movie. The Prime Minister, looking serious, was flanked by two health experts, looking even more serious, as he outlined the greatest curtailment of daily life in the UK in peacetime.

The fact that Boris Johnson or a senior colleague is to address the nation on a daily basis adds to the surreal atmosphere surrounding the battle against the coronavirus and also adds to the feelings of concern felt by many, most obviously the most at-risk group, the over-70s.

While Mr Johnson ramped up the actions that needed to be taken to tackle the spread of the virus, which he said now appeared to be reaching its fast growth phase, the emphasis remained on the public following the advice rather than compelling pubs, clubs, theatres and organisers of events likely to attract crowds to shut down.

This is not a lockdown as has happened in Italy and Spain but rather an appeal to the common sense of the British public to exercise self-distancing to prevent contracting the virus, or self-isolation if they show any symptoms of it.

The elderly need to take more drastic action, self-isolating for 12 weeks to shield themselves from social contact and possible infection. That will be a big ask for elderly people who have relatives who keep in contact with them and carry out tasks like shopping, but for those living alone it will be up to friends and neighbours to exercise community spirit and help them.

There have been some shining examples already of shopkeepers or local organisations rallying around the most vulnerable to offer them reassurance and practical aid such as food parcels.

The fact that this virus can affect anyone and that there is no vaccination against it may well spark a feeling among people that we are all in this problem together. The only way to slow the spread of the disease is to follow the medical advice and show consideration for each other.

That includes an end to panic-buying. Some people may feel they need some extra provisions or household goods in case they have to go into self-isolation at some point but the scale of buying goes beyond any discernible need.

It needs to be repeated that this plundering of the supermarket shelves is threatening those on limited budgets who rely on food and other goods being constantly available. In that respect, those supermarkets which have designated special opening hours for the elderly deserve credit for their consideration.

While some have described the measures outlined as draconian, others feel they don't go far enough. Should schools be shut now if we are moving to a fast growth phase? Some have taken that decision unilaterally while others await direction from the Minister for Education. No one denies that schools will have to shut at some stage. The difference of opinion is over timing.

We also need to think of shop workers. They have to have direct, face-to-face contact with customers each day, leaving them vulnerable to contamination, yet most have little option but to continue working to earn a wage.

Coronavirus is obviously most dangerous to health, but it is a pandemic which infects every corner of the economy and daily life. If, as the experts assure us, the number infected and the death toll continues to rise, there is no doubt that concern among the public will grow. Managing that concern will be a severe test for the Governments at Westminster and Stormont and will show us if the politicians are really up to the task. Much depends on them showing their mettle.

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