Boris Johnson warned today that the UK was facing a ‘national challenge’ as he set out how the UK plans to tackle a potential mass coronavirus outbreak affecting millions of people.
He and the Government’s two chief scientific and medical advisers faced the cameras today as coronavirus continues to sweep the world.
While keen to stress that most people will experience only mild symptoms the Government today set out its battle plan to cope with a growing pandemic that is already in Britain.
He was flanked by England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser to the Government Sir Patrick Vallance today in Downing Street as they set out how they see the situation developing.
What’s the main message?
Boris Johnson warned that the UK was facing a ‘national challenge’ as Coronavirus sweeps the globe today as he set out how the UK plans to tackle a potential mass outbreak affecting millions of people
The main message was for the public to keep calm and carry on – but make sure they wash their hands thoroughly.
The Government has a four step plan:
- Contain – detect early cases and work to prevent it ‘taking hold’ for as long as possible.
- Delay – Once the disease is well established, switch to working to slow its spread, minimise cases and contain it before the winter season comes around again.
- Research – Work to improve diagnosis and treatment including drugs and vaccines.
- Mitigate – provide the best care for sufferers and support services to minimise the overall impact on the nation.
The UK is currently at the Contain stage of this plan, with most of the more intrusive steps that could be taken coming at the Delay and Mitigate stages.
When will the plans be implemented?
Mr Johnson was flanked by England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser to the Government Sir Patrick Vallance today in Downing Street
Measures outlined by the Prime Minister and medical and scientific experts today will only be introduced when it is judged they will be most effective.
They are concerned that introducing disruptive measures too early would be counterproductive, which is why the main advice at the moment is simply to thoroughly wash your hands.
Key points in the coronavirus battle plan
- If police lose ‘significant staff’ numbers to illness, they would ‘concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order’.
- In a ‘stretching scenario’, it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks.
- The UK has stockpiles of medicines for the NHS, plus protective clothing and equipment for medical staff.
- The public can help delay the spread of the virus by washing hands with soap regularly, not spreading misinformation and relying on trusted sources.
- The Ministry of Defence will provide support as needed, including to essential services.
- If the virus takes hold, social distancing strategies could include school closures, encouraging greater home working, reducing the number of large scale gatherings and closing other educational settings.
- Non-urgent operations and other procedures could be cancelled, and hospital discharges monitored to free-up beds, with appropriate care in people’s homes.
- Hospital worker shifts could be altered and leavers or retirees called ‘back to duty’.
- Measures exist to help businesses with short-term cash flow problems.
Authorities have made it clear they do not want to disrupt people’s lives if it will make little or no difference to the spread of the disease or the NHS’s ability to treat people effectively.
How long will it last?
The current plan is for a 12-week cycle of action to tackle the outbreak. This is the time taken for it to reach a peak of cases before it starts to decline over another 12 weeks.
Scientists believe it is unlikely but not impossible that it will be contained before the summer months, when infectious diseases cases usually decline in number.
They are trying to slow its advance until then, to allow nature to help fight the battle for them.
But as yet they do not know whether this will be the only outbreak or whether it could become endemic – regularly appearing.
It sounds alarming that 80 per cent of the population could be infected and one per cent. How likely is it?
At the moment scientists are being very cautious with their projections seek more information about the global outbreak.
They were at pains today to stress that this is very much a worst-case scenario.
Evidence from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the outbreak began, suggests Coronavirus is nowhere near that deadly or contagious at the moment.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty stressed: ‘Even for the highest risk group, the great majority of people will survive this.
‘If you look at the Chinese data, if you take the very oldest people, the great majority survive.’
He added: ‘If you’re talking about the low-risk groups, the rate of mortality is well below 1 per cent.’
Who is most at risk of the virus and why?
As mentioned above, the elderly are one of the key groups.
Prof Whitty said there is a ‘significant ramp up’ in the death rate of those infected with coronavirus who are over 80 years old.
Boris Johnson says he will keep shaking hands despite coronavirus fears
Boris Johnson today said he will keep shaking hands with dignitaries and members of the public despite fears over coronavirus.
At a press conference in No10, the PM joked that he needed to shake a lot of hands.
And he laughed off suggestions over whether he would risk a diplomatic incident by refusing to carry out the greeting with foreign leaders.
‘I continue to shake hands,’ he said. ‘I think the scientific evidence is… our judgement is washing your hands is the crucial thing.’
Earlier, Health Secretary Matt Hancock voiced a similar stance.
‘It’s not a significant thing,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘So as long as you wash your hands after… then that’s fine.’
Depending on the advance of the virus, there are plans for specific measures to be taken around care homes to minimise infection risk.
Also at high risk are other ‘vulnerable’ people, those with pre-existing medical conditions that may leave them with a weakened immune system like cancer.
He said: ‘The exact percentages will depend on a lot of factors – including the health care system you have in place, so I would not expect… the numbers we are seeing in China automatically to read over to the UK.’
Can the NHS cope with an outbreak of this size?
Prof Whitty said the health services was used to ‘flexing’ to deal with large-scale outbreaks, and regularly did so for things like the winter flu.
Contingency plans are being prepared that would allow retired medics to volunteer to help. Non-essential surgery and other care would also be postponed to allow resources to be used for critical patients. And patients recuperating in hospital face being sent home to convalesce to free up beds.
Will towns be put into lockdown?
It is looking less and less likely that the UK will replicate the isolation that has been seen in Wuhan.
Because the disease is already in the country and would be hard to contain in one place at this stage, medics believe that the social and economic cost of quarantining thousands of people would far outstrip any benefit.
Will I get paid if I’m of sick?
The Prime Minister said ‘all options’ would remain under review when asked what he would do to ensure those who are ill do not also suffer hardship.
Mr Johnson said: ‘On the issue of statutory sick pay and the risks that the workforce could conceivably run in that reasonable worst case scenario, we’re going to keep all options under review but we are well aware of the issue.’
Should I go on holiday?
The vast majority of the public should not alter their travel plans said the chief scientific adviser to the Government Sir Patrick Vallance.
‘Once the epidemic is everywhere, then actually restricting travel makes no difference at all,’ he said.
‘At the moment we are certainly not recommending any change to behaviours in relation to that.
‘And if it grows in the UK, then of course it doesn’t really make more sense to say that you’re at more risk somewhere else than you are here.’
But people who are in an at-risk group might want to look at where they are going – how prevalent the disease is and the standard of local medical care, in case you become ill.
Professor Whitty added: ‘If you happen to be in a place with a very weak health service at the peak of their epidemic, weaker than the NHS, that obviously might be more problematic – and this is particularly an issue for people who are older or have pre-existing health conditions.’
Are schools going to close down and will I have to take time off work to look after my children?
As with the idea of quarantining entire towns and cities, this is not being ruled out but is not a priority.
Evidence from China suggests that children are less susceptible to catching the virus and suffer a milder illness if they do contract it, the scientists said.
In addition, having thousands of children off school would place additional strain on the NHS as vital staff took time off for childcare.
Should I be panic buying in case of being forced to stay at home in quarantine?
No., there is no need to do that. Prof Whitty said that there was no evidence that people did panic buy but took ‘logical decisions’.
‘There is no reason to be doing any panic buying or any sort of keeping large supplies of anything,’ he said.
‘This is a scientific point… the response of the British public to disasters and emergencies is extraordinary outbreaks of altruism.’
Sir Patrick said measures would be taken if homes were put under quarantine and appropriate steps taken for places such as care homes.
His comments came after Ocado warned that people are placing larger orders than usual and other supermarkets worked up contingency plans.
In some places, supermarket and pharmacy shelves have been cleared out of antibacterial gel and other supplies.
What about information I see on social media about keeping safe?
Matt Hancock the health Secretary, met with social media firms yesterday to discuss ways of combating disinformation and helping share information that could battle it.
Why is hand washing the key message?
Boris Johnson leads the way in washing his hands to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus
Because it is the easiest way to stop the spread of the virus. Your hands are the part of the body that come into most contact with other people and objects.
The disease is spread like the flu and other infections via droplets released in coughs and sneezes, so using a clean tissue or handkerchief and washing your hands thoroughly and regularly helps prevent them being spread around.
Taking this simple step also means you are less likely to have to take more drastic action, like avoiding personal contact.
The advise is to wash your hands for 20 seconds or more using soap.
Mr Johnson told reporters he continues to shake hands with people.
He said: ‘I am shaking hands, I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were coronavirus patients and I was shaking hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.
‘People must make up their own minds but I think the scientific evidence is… our judgment is that washing your hands is the crucial thing.’