How UK can learn from deadly Spanish Flu mistakes ahead of lockdown ease

In 1918-1919 when San Francisco was faced with the lethal Spanish Flu, the city saw the number of infections spike after lifting a ban on gatherings just a month after introducing it. Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave his first speech today after returning to Downing Street from battling with coronavirus for over three weeks.

Mr Johnson confirmed it was too soon to ease the lockdown measures and that now is the “moment of maximum risk”.

Top Government scientists said the peak of the outbreak in the UK has passed and the figures are dropping.

But they advised Mr Johnson to resist calls to lift the lockdown until new cases and deaths have reached the lowest point possible.

In San Francisco over 100 years ago, officials introduced prevention measures similar to the ones introduced during the coronavirus pandemic.

Restrictions like a ban on public gatherings and the compulsory use of face masks lead to an improvement in the number of infections and deaths from the disease.

Encouraged by the low numbers indicating that the spread had slowed down, officials lifted the preventive measures after just for weeks.

The disease rebounded around three weeks causing a second, longer outbreak.

The prolonged second wave saw more cases and deaths than the first.

San Francisco eventually recorded more than 45,000 cases of the flu and 3,000 deaths – the figures were more than double what had been reported at the end of the first lockdown.

Other cities fared better and graphs showing the progress of their outbreaks show how longer lockdown restrictions can diminish death tolls and avoid a second wave.

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In New York, for example, social distancing was in place from mid-September until December, and was not lifted until the daily death toll was at its lowest, to lower than a tenth of what it had been at the peak.

London Breed, the current mayor of the California city, has told residents they must all wear face masks when they leave their houses.

She told NBC News: “Just because San Francisco is being praised for flattening the curve, we’re not there yet.

“And so we cannot let up just because for some reason we believe that we’re in a better place.”

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Boris Johnson said yesterday in an speech outside Downing Street: “I entirely share your urgency [to end lockdown].

“And yet we must also recognise the risk of a second spike. The risk of losing control of that virus and letting the reproduction rate go back over one.

“Because that would mean not only a new wave of death and disease but also an economic disaster, and we would be forced once again to slam on the brakes across the whole country and the whole economy, and reimpose restrictions in such a way as to do more and lasting damage…

“I refuse to throw away all the effort and sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak.”

Lockdowns are less likely to have an effect the second time around because of “crisis fatigue”.

Crisis fatigue leads people to lose faith in the advice and get bored of abiding by the restrictions.

The Chief of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said yesterday: “As lockdowns in Europe ease with declining numbers of COVID-19 cases, we continue to urge countries to find, isolate, test and treat all cases and trace every contact, to ensure these declining trends continue.”

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