LONDON — In recent days millions of Britons have defied government advice about practicing social distancing to congregate on beaches and in parks, ignoring stark warnings that the pandemic devastating Italy and Spain won’t stop at the English Channel without strong measures.
One mountain in Wales, Snowdonia National Park, recorded its busiest day in living memory on Saturday, stunning workers at the site who reported “significant crowding on the mountain summits,” and who said it was “impossible” for trekkers to “maintain effective social distancing.”
Later that evening Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation and pleaded for people to stay indoors. “The numbers are very stark, and they are accelerating,” Johnson said, adding that the U.K. is only “two or three weeks” behind Italy, and admitting Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) could be overwhelmed in a similar way to the Italian health care system.
The U.K. has so far reported 8,077 confirmed cases of the virus, including Prince Charles, who is next in line for the throne, and 422 people have died. Italy still has the most deaths of any nation in the world with 6,820.
Researchers who have analyzed the data estimate that the current death toll in Britain is roughly two weeks behind that of Italy, which means if the U.K. is on the same trajectory, the death toll could soon see a sharp increase.
The figures have left many wondering why the country didn’t learn from the experience of other European nations and take social distancing advice seriously.
NHS Dr. Amir Khan told Yahoo News it is “disheartening and disappointing” to see people still gathering in groups and said mixed messages from the government could be to blame.
“I do think we’re heading towards a situation like Italy and Spain. It does pain me to say but those images that we’ve seen of people out and about are really going to be a nail in the coffin for NHS workers,” Khan said.
“The government, in my opinion, probably wasn’t quick enough to give firm, clear advice to people, and that sadly will result in higher numbers of people getting the illness,” Khan said. “The lack of social distancing that we’ve seen so far in the U.K. is going to contribute to a peak of cases over the next 10 to 14 days,” he added.
The U.K. was slow to impose a nationwide lockdown, which Johnson announced on Monday, forcing the closure of nonessential shops and businesses. But since the stricter measures were introduced, pictures on social media of crowded tube trains and construction workers still gathering across the capital emerged, raising questions over how the government would enforce the new rules.
“I’m hoping people will now adhere to the forced guidelines which have now come out. But I’m still seeing people driving around in cars and all of that kind of stuff, so I’m not as hopeful as perhaps I should be,” Khan told Yahoo News.
“I don’t think people think they may get it, or they may die, or someone they know may die. But the reality is at the end of all this all of us will know someone who died from the coronavirus,” Khan said.
Meanwhile some in Italy watched in horror the British public ignoring public-health measures — as Italians themselves did, until a nationwide lockdown was put in place three weeks ago.
Giulia Zanotti, a lawyer based in Verona, a town in one of the most affected regions in the north of Italy, said people at first ignored the lockdown measures, which took hold there before they were extended across the country.
“People kept ignoring the guidelines and just kept on living their lives. For instance, I remember that the weekend after the lockdown (in the northeast), many people went skiing or just went outside and kept on living their lives,” Zanotti told Yahoo News.
“I’m quite concerned about the fact about the way other countries and especially the U.K. are managing and facing this situation,” Zanotti added.
Valentina Turrini, a social scientist who lives in Milan, said countries across the world should have learned from Italy.
“We [Italy] have been described as too dramatic or as incompetent, and [other countries] didn’t believe this and you had the evidence under your nose,” Turrini told Yahoo News.
“You just had to look at our very good public health system struggling to cope in advance. And we Italians felt that you had much more time than us to prevent so many deaths, and you had an advantage, but you just choose to waste it,” Turrini said.
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