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British government worries about virus outbreak, but residents carry on

March 11, 2020


JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to COVID-19, and
to Britain, where, so far, the virus has killed six people there; 370 people are infected
and quarantined. The British government is watching developments
in Italy, amid fears that levels of infection could rise dramatically, and soon. But as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant
reports, for the time being, the attitude in Britain is very much, keep calm and carry
on. MALCOLM BRABANT (singing): God save our gracious
queen. Long live our noble queen. I haven’t suddenly become super patriotic
because of Brexit, but I’m following, to the letter, the instructions from Britain’s prime
minister. BORIS JOHNSON, British Prime Minister: The
best single thing we can do is wash our hands, two verses of the national anthem or happy
birthday, hot water, bar of soap. Two verses. MALCOLM BRABANT: After winning the general
election three months ago, Boris Johnson’s main leadership challenge was to negotiate
post-Brexit trade deals. But now his premiership is being tested by
war with an invisible enemy that threatens both the health and wealth of the nation. BORIS JOHNSON: If we continue to look out
for one another, to pull together in a united and national effort, I have no doubt that
we can and will rise to that challenge. MALCOLM BRABANT: Currently, the government
is trying to contain the virus, and has postponed measures such as establishing exclusion zones
to delay its spread. But more stringent controls are coming, says
Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser. CHRIS WHITTY, Chief British Medical Officer:
So, we are now very close to the time, probably within the next 10 to 14 days, when the modeling
would imply we should move to a situation where we say, everybody who has even minor
respiratory tract infections or a fever should be self-isolating for seven days afterwards. MALCOLM BRABANT: That means anyone with a
cough or cold will be obliged to stay home. The government has guaranteed that sick pay
will kick in from day one, instead of the usual day four. But what about financially vulnerable groups? ROBERT DINGWALL, Sociologist: How do you self-isolate
if you’re in precarious employment? How do you self-isolate if you’re too poor to have
sufficient stocks of food in the House? MALCOLM BRABANT: Sociologist Robert Dingwall
advises the government on morality and the ethics of its emergency planning. ROBERT DINGWALL: Essentially, if the government
is going to ask people to self-isolate, the government has to take responsibility for
the consequences of that. And that’s in terms of ensuring those people
have an income, that they have access to food, they have access to other services that they
might need during that period of self-isolation. You can’t just ask for the self-isolation
on its own. MALCOLM BRABANT: For now, Britain has decided
not to follow Italy, where soccer matches have taken place in empty stadiums. At Derby County, attendance at the latest
game was above average. The club’s mascot was tactile, despite advice to reduce human
contact. Here, 130 miles north of London, characteristic British stoicism was on prominent
display. GORDON ROBINSON, Mental Health Worker: Football’s
got to continue. You can’t stop things. You cannot stop your way of living because of
a virus that’s only killed a few people at this moment in time. STACEY GOODWIN, Warehouse Worker: For me,
the media is blowing it all out of proportion. They’re making a mountain out of a molehill.
They’re causing people to panic-buy. And, yes, me, I’m not worried. MARGARET EDWARDS, Soccer Fan: I know, with
me being older, you see, they’re talking about stopping older people from coming because
they’re more vulnerable to it. But I have had all sorts over my life. If I have got
to go, I have got to go. SHIRLEY COX, Postal Worker: People are starting
to panic. When we went to Sainsbury’s yesterday, you couldn’t get a toilet roll. People are
stockpiling already. What does it say about Britain? Well, we go into panic mode too easily,
I think. MALCOLM BRABANT: The latest British obsession
with hoarding toilet paper puzzles some, because the virus impacts the respiratory, and not
other systems. The disappearance of hand sanitizers from
shelves is more understandable. Retailers have insisted that they have enough supplies
and will restock. But shoppers don’t appear reassured. SIR SIMON WESSELY, Behavioral Scientist: I
hate that phrase panic buying. MALCOLM BRABANT: Sir Simon Wessely is a leading
psychiatrist and expert in mass hysteria. He’s one of the behavioral scientists advising
the government how to best handle the crisis. SIR SIMON WESSELY: You would have to be an
idiot not to go and get essential supplies, toilet paper, dog food, et cetera. I have
done both of those myself. So this isn’t panic buying. This is a rational
decision by people thinking, I might be stuck in my house for 14 days. MALCOLM BRABANT: But in an age of individualism,
of diminishing community spirit, coupled with skepticism of authority figures, could the
public revolt against future tougher measures? SIR SIMON WESSELY: In general, I think the
public have already shown that they will follow instructions, so long as they understand them,
so long as they are given clearly, and so long as the purpose is there, particularly
if, instead of frightening people that if you don’t we will send you to prison or fine
you, but, actually, if you do this, you are helping the common good, you are protecting
your relatives, you’re protecting the sick and the vulnerable. MALCOLM BRABANT: Britain’s royal family is
playing its part. There was no handshaking at Westminster Abbey for a service notable
as the last official engagement of Prince Harry and his American wife, Meghan Markle,
who are withdrawing from royal duties. The queen’s heir, Prince Charles, proffered
an Eastern greeting. But for such gatherings to continue, Britain needs to amend the lyrics
of its national anthem to still send her victorious, but over a new foe. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Malcolm Brabant
in London.

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