We are at the start of a global health crisis incomparable to any since the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed more people than the first world war. Coronavirus is spreading silently and malignantly, from our work and social spaces, out to our homes, into shops and back again. It preys particularly on vulnerable people – those already sick, people over 70.

In the UK, by the end of Saturday, we had reported more than 5,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 233 deaths. This is almost the exact number of cases and deaths Italy reported on 7 March. Two days later, the Italian government imposed a national quarantine. Even despite these extraordinary measures, which should start having an effect this week, in its latest figures, Italy reported 59,138 cases and 5,476 deaths. Its hospitals are overflowing far beyond capacity. Military trucks are transporting dead bodies to cemeteries in the country. The grim truth is that the UK is two weeks behind Italy, following a similar trajectory, with significantly fewer hospital beds.

The British government has failed to properly digest the lessons from the countries which were infected before us. We wasted precious weeks pursuing an outlier “herd immunity” strategy, which contradicted World Health Organization advice and has been criticised by many public health experts. On Friday, Boris Johnson finally, reluctantly, and reportedly only because of pressure from French president, Emmanuel Macron, closed pubs, restaurants and social spaces. But many other shops and public spaces remain open. This weekend, images of packed London parks and flower markets circulated on the internet. The prime minister has advised people to stay at home, but there are no measures to limit crowds on public transport. Lives are different, but Brits are still going out.

It is not enough. The failure to take drastic public health measures now could have a disastrous impact on our NHS in April. Nurses and doctors are already struggling to cope. Given the exponential rates at which this disease spreads, hospitals are on track to be decimated in a few weeks’ time. Unnecessary deaths will happen because our hospitals are just too full.

There is no doubt those in government are working incredibly hard, under immense strain, in unprecedented times. However, a picture is emerging that a combination of complacency and British exceptionalism may have cost lives which could have been saved if we acted more boldly. Despite what decision-makers may have thought, Britain is not naturally more resilient than Italy. Johnson should also have recognised the danger emerging in London by including its mayor, Sadiq Khan, in the coronavirus Cobra meetings from the start.

An examination of what went wrong in the UK government’s management in the early stages of this crisis will come at a later date. What matters now are the actions we can take to limit the numbers of coronavirus patients in the immediate future and prevent our health service from being over-run.

First, Johnson should announce an urgent enforced lockdown in areas which are highly affected by the virus, including London, as has been demanded in an open letter by more than 40 of the country’s most senior scientific academics. Health interventions based on individual agency are never fully effective, as is demonstrated by decades of campaigns urging people to only drink in moderation. A regional approach to containment and travel restrictions, with strict limits on movement between areas of high and low infection, has been shown to be successful in China, which yesterday reported no new local cases for the third day running. France, another liberal democracy, has introduced its own strictly enforced lockdowns.

The urgent introduction of mass testing, alongside case isolation and contact tracing, is just as vital. As of 20 March, the UK had tested just 64,621 people for the virus. In South Korea, which has been testing up to 20,000 people per day, there has been a dramatic slowdown in infection. It was a relief last week when Johnson announced plans to increase testing to 25,000 per day, but, it is unclear when this promise will be fulfilled. We must support everyone trying to make this happen – in the NHS, in universities and research centres, in manufacturing and distribution – to speed things up. Health workers must be prioritised for tests. Without doing so, we do not know how many staff are self-isolating unnecessarily when hospitals need them.

An enforced lockdown in London, and other hotspots, will rightly discomfort anyone with even the faintest liberal disposition. The freedom to move around is fundamental to our social contract. But if we continue to live as we please over the coming few weeks, the result will be thousands of unnecessary deaths. Us Londoners must be prepared to temporarily sacrifice our liberty to save lives.

David Lammy is the Labour MP for Tottenham

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