People are taking precautions over the coronavirus
As the number of confirmed infections in Britain reached 40, the Prime Minister approves a battle plan for containing and delaying the spread of the disease at a meeting of the Whitehall “Cobra” emergency committee.
Millions could instruct millions of employees to work from home to slash unnecessary travel under a “social distancing” strategy, the Government said.
Mr Johnson will also seek to rush legislation to give ministers emergency powers including measures to limit large public gatherings and maintain supply chains for food and other essentials through Parliament by the end of the month.
At the Cobra meeting, Chancellor Rishi Sunak also warned ministers of the threat of a worldwide economic downturn after the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development raising concern about the biggest hit to world growth since the 2008 financial crisis.
Last night, Mr Johnson said: “It is highly likely coronavirus will spread more widely in the coming days and weeks, which is why we’re making every possible preparation.
“We have agreed a plan, which I will set out in detail today, so if the virus should spread, we are ready to take necessary steps to contain it and protect the most vulnerable.
“But we can all continue to do our bit to fight this virus – by washing our hands with soap and water for the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.”
In a BBC interview last night, the Prime Minister said “a very significant expansion of coronavirus in the UK population” was “clearly on the cards.”
He said: “At the moment, it’s difficult to speculate about exactly how it may or may not progress but what I think you can say with a fair degree of certainty is that it is much more likely than not that we will face a challenge in the weeks and months ahead.
“You’ve got to consider the realistic possibility that there is now going to be a significant expansion in the number of cases.”
Mr Johnson said the Government was preparing emergency measures including closing schools and cancelling major public events that could be introduced if and when the outbreak spreads.
“What we’ve got is a range of calibrated responses. The issue will be when and how and with what logic to apply them.
“Of course we will do everything we can to stop the spread of the disease.”
Full details of the Prime Minister UK-wide battle plan – which was endorsed by Scottish First minister Nicola Sturgeon and other devolved assembly leaders – will be announced today.
Measures in the plan include:
:: The possibility of the Government encouraging widespread home working and discouraging unnecessary travel as part of “social distancing” strategy.
:: Emergency registration of retired health professionals who could be recalled to help out the NHS.
:: Emergency indemnity coverage for health care workers to provide care or diagnostic services.
:: Possible relaxation of rules around staff to pupil ratios in education and childcare settings.
:: Every Government department will have a designated minister in charge of leading the departmental response to the virus outbreak.
:: A “war room” will be set up in the Cabinet Office bringing together experts and scientists from across the Government and the NHS to prepare a massive public information campaign.
Protecting health in London
In an earlier interview yesterday, the Prime Minister acknowledged coronavirus was set to become a deepening problem across the country.
“I think it is very important to stress that this is a problem that is likely to become more significant for this country in the course of the next days and weeks,” he said
“We’ve making preparations for that and this country is well prepared.
“We’ve got a fantastic NHS, we’ve got fantastic testing systems, amazing surveillance of the spread of disease.
“But we’ve also agreed a plan so that if and when it starts to spreads, as I’m afraid it looks likely that it will, we are in a position to take the steps that will be necessary to contain the spread of the disease as far as we can and also to protect the most vulnerable.
“We’ll be announcing the details of that plan in the course of the days and weeks ahead as the thing develops.”
The Prime Minister shows the way
Speaking in Number 10, Mr Johnson insisted the Government was following the best medical advice available to try to minimise the impact of the illness.
“There are all sorts of projections of where it could go, you’ve seen what happened in China, but our job is to protect the public.
“We think we’ve got a very good plan and a very good way of telling how and when to take the steps to stop the spread of the disease.
“The most important thing for people to understand is that [measures] will be guided by scientific advice, that the crucial thing.
“All four nations of the UK and the chief medical officers are involved in this and they will be helping us to take the key decisions about when and how to take protective steps and they will be led by the scientific advice,” the Prime Minister said.
He repeated his plea for everyone to help minimise the spread of coronavirus by taking the simple step of regularly washing their hands in hot, soapy water for at least 20 seconds, long enough to sing two choruses of Happy Birthday.
“Don’t forget, it is still the case that the single most useful thing we can all do to support our NHS to stop the spread of coronavirus is two wash our hands – two times Happy Birthday, hot water and soap.
“Other than that thought I wish to stress that at the moment it’s very important that people should consider that they should, as far as possible, go about business as usual,” he said.
Professor Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director of Public Health England, also warned that widespread transmission of coronavirus in the UK was “highly likely” because as not all cases could be traced to overseas.
“I wouldn’t say anything is inevitable, but it is now highly likely,” Prof Cosford said.
He added: “At the moment, the vast majority of cases we see in the UK are still linked to countries where there is more widespread infection, either in Italy or South East Asia.
“It is true to say there is a small number now where it is much more difficult to find that link, and that is leading us to think we may well see more widespread infection in the UK fairly soon.
“It could happen in the next few days or it could take a little longer.”
Haslemere is ‘twinned’ with Wuhan
Prof Cosford said most people would only suffer mild infection, and that children and healthy adults seem to be at much lower risk of serious complications, while experts would worry most about the elderly and those with an underlying illness.
Around 20 ministers and officials, including representatives from every Whitehall department, attended yesterday’s meeting in the Cobra suite of offices in the Cabinet Office basement. Cobra stands for “Cabinet Office Briefing Room A.”
During the meeting, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the Treasury was making preparations with the Bank of England and financial regulators for the economic impact of the virus.
Extra cash for the NHS to cope with a potential epidemic is expected to be announced later this week.
Last night, Mr Sunak said: “The whole Government is working closely together to tackle the spread of COVID-19.
“We understand that people across the country are worried, but I assure you that we are taking firm action to support your families, your businesses and the public services on which you rely.
“We are well prepared for this global threat and, as the wider economic picture becomes clearer, we stand ready to announce further support where needed.”
Miss Sturgeon, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster contributed to the meeting via a conference call.
Protecting against coronavirus in a restaurant
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “The UK-wide action plan in response to coronavirus was agreed by all four parts of the UK. They will be working closely together to ensure we have the best response for dealing with the outbreak.”
Rejecting suggestions the Government had been slow to react to the outbreak, the spokesman said: “We have been taking extensive steps led by the very best medical advice since the very beginning of this outbreak.
“The top priority is to keep the public safe while minimising the economic and social consequences. We will take all reasonable steps driven by the science.”
He insisted the uncertainty about a widespread outbreak was not disrupting Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s preparations for next week’s Budget.
“The Budget will go ahead on March 11 and the Government stands ready to use all levers as its disposal to ensure that we are as prepared as we can be.
“The Chancellor and the Prime Minister are fully aware of the evolving situation,” the spokesman said.
Legislation to give the Government emergency powers could be introduced into the Commons as early as next week, according to Whitehall insiders.
As well as limiting public gatherings, the measures could suspend maximum class size rules to allow teachers to cover for sick colleagues, suspend maximum hours for lorry drivers in order to maintain necessary supplies and allow retired doctors and nurses temporarily return to work to help the NHS.
Ministers want the legislation on the statute book by the end of the month when the virus is likely to be spreading across the country in order to delay infections.
Masks are selling out in shops
In each Whitehall department, one minister has been charged with overseeing the response to coronavirus.
At a local level, resilience forums of officials and medical experts are being updated regularly on the level of infections.
Government sources predicted it could be “months rather than weeks” before the coronavirus outbreak in the UK peaks.
In a suggestion that extra emergency powers would not be required immediately, the source said: “We don’t want to have to take decisions before we have to. As much as possible we want people to carry on with their daily lives.”
As he left the Cobra meeting Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg reiterated that people should “wash their hands” to combat the spread of Covid-19.
“It turns out that one verse of the national anthem is exactly the right length of time for which to wash your hands,” he said.
He added: “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases, keep it in your handkerchief.”
When pressed on whether the virus was containable, he said: “You should direct your questions to the Health Secretary, not to me.
“My responsibility is a legislative one, not an implementation.”
Other ministers, including Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, refused to comment as they left the Cabinet Office.