|Empty telephone boxes are seen in a near-deserted central London on March 25 after the government ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. AFP|
By Jean-Baptiste Andrieux
Korean students in Britain say they have been disappointed and upset at the country's poor handling of COVID-19.
Repeated policy changes of the U.K. government in the face of the global pandemic is at the heart of their concerns.
"Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to put the country on lockdown but changed his mind after a few days," said Kim Min-jeong, a resident of Oxford. "Countries like Italy, Spain and France reacted more quickly."
Johnson announced his decision to put the U.K. on lockdown on the evening of March 23, two weeks after Italy and nine days after Spain ― two other badly hit countries in Europe.
"I was quite surprised when I heard that there was no systematic testing," Park Ji-hun, who left London before the shutdown, said. "Also, I felt that preventive measures such as shortening the opening times of public establishments and social distancing were implemented too late."
The "disbelief" among Koreans there reached its peak after the government's chief scientific officer, Patrick Vallance, said the U.K. would adopt a "herd immunity" strategy.
This approach aims to give enough of the population COVID-19 so they can develop immunity against it. At high enough levels, this would make it difficult for the virus to spread, as these people would not be able to contract it, and so could not spread the infection to healthy individuals. However, some patients have been found to get re-infected after recovery, leading to this strategy being abandoned
"This idea was absolutely ridiculous and irresponsible," said Hyun-jin from Coventry. "Viruses can mutate very quickly. Many of my friends went back home because of this."
|Travellers wear face masks as they wait at Heathrow Airport in London on Wednesday, March 18. AP|
No wonder Koreans are flocking home. But there are no flight tickets available between London and Incheon until April 4.
Those returning from Europe will have to stay 14 days in quarantine before being tested and released if the test is negative.
Korea's response to the crisis has been hailed internationally. As the country was hit by an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2015, Korea was prepared to face a new wave of respiratory diseases.
Rigorous quarantine measures, systematic testing of asymptomatic people and tracing of infected individuals enabled Korea to flatten the curve of newly infected people without going on lockdown.
"We are better organized in Korea," said Heidi, a Korean student in Birmingham. "We even have drive-through testing spots, where people can be tested within 30 minutes without leaving their car."
This successful approach got the attention of European governments. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, contacted Korean President Moon Jae-in for advice on March 12.
Whether the "Korean solution" can be applied in the U.K. remains questionable.
"Privacy regulations in Korea are very different from those in the U.K.," said Kim Young-mi, a senior lecturer at the department of East Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh. "Also, smartphone and internet networks are more developed in Korea.
"Having said this, I think trying to adapt and adopt some lessons from the Korean experience would be helpful. Life and work go on as usual in Korea. The country is not on lockdown, because the question whether society will comply with the rules does not arise."
Jean-Baptiste Andrieux is a freelance writer based in London.