The Guardian view on the UK response to coronavirus: playing catch-up | Opinion

The best time to act has already passed. The second best time is now. We have already squandered too many days in the battle against coronavirus. The 177 deaths reported in the UK are only the beginning. Hospitals are already under intense pressure. Because so few people are being tested, and because it takes days to get results, and because growth is exponential, we can be certain that the true level of the disease outbreak is many, many times worse than the figures suggest. When hospitals are overwhelmed, the mortality rate will rise steeply too.

The prime minister has now announced that all pubs and bars, cafes and nightclubs, gyms and cinemas must close. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced that the government will pay 80% of wages for employees who are not working, up to £2,500 a month, as well as increasing universal credit, working tax credit and housing benefit. These are, as Mr Sunak said, unprecedented measures for unprecedented times, although the greatest benefits are reserved for those in regular work. The change in pace is welcome, necessary and overdue. Taken in concert with those previously announced, notably school closures, the social distancing measures are stringent and even shocking. Will they be enough?

With each day lost, the dangers increase and tougher measures are needed. Britain had one advantage: the experience of others. China, South Korea and Italy have all showed how fast the number of cases and deaths could rise. We squandered the time we could have spent preparing, and ignored lessons from abroad.

To many watching from outside, we have looked like a nation in denial. Though transmission is clearly much more advanced in London than elsewhere, official figures show significant clusters of cases in places from Sheffield to Hampshire. Other countries have shown that draconian lockdown measures or extensive testing and tracing of contacts can contain outbreaks – at least in the short term. Britain has abandoned community testing and has missed the window for a tracing policy.

Telling households to stay home if one person feels sick is insufficient when a significant proportion of transmission occurs before the carrier is symptomatic. The government failed to give an early, clear, strong and consistent message on the need for social distancing – or the economic means to ensure cooperation. That delay means that the measures announced on Friday are probably still not enough – especially given that the prime minister seemed to think it was still all right to visit elderly parents for Mother’s Day. New York and California have insisted, for instance, that all but essential workers stay home.

The government pivoted away from herd immunity, yet did not move fast or far enough. Institutions and large parts of the public have proved themselves far ahead of authorities: the Premier League suspending the season; the Church of England announcing that only five people would be allowed at weddings.

Compare and contrast Boris Johnson’s bumbling, confused performances, and his blithe assurance that the UK can turn the tide in 12 weeks, with Angela Merkel’s clear and urgent address to her nation a few days earlier – or even the much more impressive remarks of his own chancellor. Consider the lack of a public education campaign compared with those seen in Asia.

No one suggests such restrictions are easy or even wholly effective. The report by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies published on Friday notes that the Imperial model suggests Britain “will come in and out of a shutdown for two years”, to manage the burden on the NHS. The goal can only be to buy time: time to obtain and use tests that quickly tell us whether health staff are infected; time to acquire more beds and equipment; time in which effective treatments may be discovered or – in the longer term – a vaccine.

Key questions remain. When will NHS staff be tested? How quickly can capacity be ramped up to the promised 25,000 a day, for wider testing? What efforts are being made to increase the supply of personal protective equipment to hospitals, and how quickly will they pay off? The government’s change of pace was desperately needed, but there is much further to go.

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