The Guardian view on the coronavirus outbreak: leadership is required A passenger on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan became the first Briton to die of the Covid-19 coronavirus on Friday. Further UK cases beyond the 20 already confirmed are expected, while countries including Mexico, Nigeria and Denmark have announced their first positive tests. The World Health Organization assesses the level of risk as “very high at global level”. But the scale and impact of the Covid-19 outbreak that began in Wuhan, China, in December, remain deeply uncertain. That is because whle viral outbreaks have happened before, each one is different. While severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) had a higher death rate, Covid-19 appears to be more contagious. Its spread is already being determined in hard-to-predict ways by human behaviour.
To limit the damage as far as possible, trust and information are of the essence. In the UK, as elsewhere, it is imperative that the government, and other public bodies, provide straightforward advice about travel and sanitation as well as the disease. For the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to say earlier this week that he would not travel to northern Italy was unwise because it contradicted official guidance. Instead, ministers must lead by example.
In recent weeks Boris Johnson has appeared in public rarely. There are circumstances in which a cabinet minister is an effective substitute. But with a threatened pandemic, combined with ongoing floods, leadership is called for. The prime minister, who is often said to have harboured a lifelong ambition to head his country’s government, should now end its petty boycott of key BBC news programmes. It cannot be left to backbench Conservative colleagues such as the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt to encourage people to deal with these unpredictable events in a responsible way. This is all the more important when xenophobic outbursts have been reported, and when the risks associated with panic behaviours such as stockpiling are well known.
It is a missed opportunity and a mistake by Mr Johnson not to have called a Cobra meeting before Monday. Governments, businesses and institutions of all sorts face difficult decisions, based on balancing risks. Broadly speaking, these are the dangers of Covid-19 itself, weighed against the disruption caused by any measures, such as school closures or travel restrictions, that are taken to limit its spread. Individuals can find themselves confronting similar dilemmas and, within the parameters set out by advice from councils or employers, will behave differently. “Social distancing”, meaning avoiding hugging and kissing, is recommended. But the threat is not the same for everyone. While fit young adults are likely to recover should they catch Covid-19, older people and those with underlying health conditions are more vulnerable. Every family will contain people with different susceptibilities.
Beyond the immediate risks to health, experts warn that a recession is likely. Markets have had their worst week since 2008 and central banks are less able to act in the face of a supply-side shock such as this, than they are when demand weakens. The unpredictability of the disease is magnified in the reactions to it of our interconnected global economic systems. It is impossible, too, to know what the political impact will be, except that it will surely be greater if nationalists seek to profit from the disruption to flows of capital, goods and people. But the worst outcomes may still be averted. Political leadership and clear communication are the immediate necessities.