Britain Enlists an Army of Volunteers to Help Fight the Coronavirus


LONDON — Two days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a lockdown on Britain to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the government has recruited an army of more than 400,000 volunteers to help elderly people quarantined in their homes, as well as the beleaguered public health system.

The recruiting drive, which drew nearly twice its goal in less than 24 hours, was one of several rays of hope in a country that has been girding itself for an onslaught of infections. Officials also expressed guarded optimism that the National Health Service could cope with the flood of patients now that Britain has adopted the sweeping social-distancing measures of other European countries.

“This is going to be a close-run thing,” Chris Whitty, the country’s chief medical officer, said at a Downing Street news conference with Mr. Johnson. “This gap will probably be manageable by the N.H.S., but we can’t guarantee that.”

The statement was a striking turnaround from last week, when officials and outside experts warned that Britain was on a course to be the next Italy, with a growing number of cases that would hopelessly swamp hospitals. It was also evidence that Britain, which only grudgingly accepted the isolation measures of Italy, France and Spain, was pulling together to meet a national challenge.

The government moved to fix one of its weaknesses — widespread testing — by announcing plans to buy 3.5 million test kits that would allow people to test themselves at home. The tests, which officials said would be available on Amazon or at Boots drugstores, would allow doctors and nurses to work more safely.

None of these developments will spare Britain a harrowing few weeks, as the trajectory of cases rises steeply.

“We will cope, and we are coping under the most challenging circumstances,” Mr. Johnson said. He marveled at the recruiting campaign, which he said had attracted “in one day, as many as the population of Coventry” — a midsize city known for its medieval cathedral left in ruins by Nazi bombs in World War II.

The 405,000 volunteers, he said, would deliver food and medicine to roughly 1.5 million elderly and vulnerable people, whom the government has asked to stay at home for 12 weeks. Thousands of retired doctors and nurses have agreed to go back to work to reinforce the ranks of the health service.

That, plus the lockdown that Britain has adopted, has buoyed hopes among experts that the hospitals will be able to cope. Among them is a prominent scientist who warned last week that Britain could face as many as 250,000 deaths if it did not take steps to suppress the contagion.

The scientist, Neil Ferguson, who heads a team of epidemiologists at Imperial College London, told a parliamentary committee that the measures would prevent the National Health Service from being overwhelmed in the next few weeks.

Then, two weeks ago, it issued a new report, based on statistics from Italy, that took a more alarmist view. Britain, it said, could not afford to allow the virus to spread unchecked, and an effective campaign to suppress the virus would need to last for months.

Dr. Ferguson, who later reported suffering symptoms of the coronavirus himself, shared the findings with the White House, where officials said they played a role in temporarily shifting the tone of President Trump.

“It is hard to judge the accuracy of his statements in the absence of seeing the underlying data and evidence,” said Devi Sridhar, director of the global health governance program at Edinburgh University.



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