Just days before U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a nationwide lockdown to contain the coronavirus epidemic, health officials in Britain quietly lowered the official threat level for the pandemic, saying the COVID-19 virus did not meet the criteria to qualify as a “high consequence infectious disease” (HCID).
U.K. health officials had tentatively identified COVID-19 as an HCID in late January, but said in a March 19 statement it was rescinding its interim decision.
“This was based on consideration of the U.K. HCID criteria about the virus and the disease with information available during the early stages of the outbreak,” the statement said.
“Now that more is known about COVID-19, the public health bodies in the UK have … determined that several features have now changed; in particular, more information is available about mortality rates (low overall), and there is now greater clinical awareness and a specific and sensitive laboratory test, the availability of which continues to increase.”
The statement said a government body that deals with pathogens agreed the virus did not merit the HCID designation, but also added that the risk to the U.K from the outbreak “has been raised to high.”
Five days later, Mr. Johnson — who critics say was slow to respond the global pandemic — said in a national address that Britons faced “a moment of national emergency” and ordered U.K. residents to stay in their homes and limited public activities and nonessential businesses for the next three weeks at least.
Through Wednesday morning, according to government figures, Britain reported 9,529 positive cases of coronavirus out of just over 97,000 people tested and 463 virus-related deaths.
Skeptics of the severity of the virus have promoted the March 19 move on Twitter as proof that doomsday scenarios and severe economic measures being implemented worldwide are an overreaction.
“You’d have thought [the change] would be reported!” one British poster tweeted. “I wonder if they’ve agreed not to so that people still take it seriously and comply with lockdown.”
But others said the lower designation cleared the way for broader treatment options, as COVID-19 cases could now be treated at ordinary hospitals and not just as the few specialty infectious disease centers.
British health officials say a number of criteria must be met for the HCID designation, including a high case-fatality rate; no effective containment or treatment; difficulty in rapid detection; the ability to spread in the community and within health care settings; and the need for population-wide measures to “ensure [the disease] is managed effectively, efficiently and safely.”