The UK has mainly moved into the “delay phase” of tackling coronavirus, England’s chief medical officer has said, as the country’s 90th case was confirmed.
Professor Chris Whitty, who is being grilled by MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee, said there was now evidence of community transmission between people who had no connections to overseas cases or returning travellers.
He also warned that access to critical care beds could be under the most pressure in the NHS as the virus escalates.
He said: “We have moved from a situation where we are mainly in contain, with some delay built in, to we are now mainly delay,” he said, although elements of the contain process were remaining in place.
The delay phase means measures to tackle coronavirus are ramped up to delay its spread.
The Government’s battle plan says of the delay phase: “Action that would be considered could include population distancing strategies (such as school closures, encouraging greater home working, reducing the number of large-scale gatherings) to slow the spread of the disease throughout the population, while ensuring the country’s ability to continue to run as normally as possible.”
Earlier Scotland confirmed three more cases of coronavirus, taking the UK total to 90.
Overall, current figures show 80 cases in England, six in Scotland, one in Wales and three in Northern Ireland.
In other key developments:
– ITV revealed travel companies are deferring their TV advertising because of the disease, with advertising revenue due to drop 10% in April.
– Europe’s largest regional airline Flybe has collapsed into administration, with a source telling the PA news agency coronavirus “made a difficult situation worse”.
– The Grand Princess cruise ship, with around 2,500 passengers and 1,000 crew, is being held off the coast of California after a former passenger died from Covid-19.
– The Department of Health was criticised by experts and the public on Twitter for failing to provide daily updates on the locations of new UK cases.
– England’s Six Nations game against Italy on March 14 in Rome has been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Prof Whitty told MPs it is now “highly likely” there is “community transmission” of coronavirus in the UK.
“I think we should work on the assumption it is here, on very low levels, at this point in time – but that I think should be the working assumption on which we go forward from this point onwards,” he said.
Prof Whitty also said it would be “lucky” to get a vaccine for Covid-19 in the next year, though existing drugs could play a role.
He said he had a “reasonably high degree of confidence” that 1% is at the “upper limit” of the mortality rate for coronavirus, although Wuhan in China, which has a weaker health system, had seen an 8% to 9% mortality rate for those aged 80 and over.
Prof Whitty warned that access to critical care beds could be put under the most pressure in the NHS.
He said: “The bit of the system which will come under pressure first will be those conditions that require people to have oxygen and particularly to have critical care beds, and that bit, I think, will come under pressure at quite an early stage if we have a high-end-of-the-range epidemic for this.”
The impact on the health service would be most sharply felt over a period of around three weeks to nine weeks at the height of the epidemic.
Prof Whitty said: “For those people who get the disease severe enough to need hospital but not severe enough, fortunately, to kill them, they will still need NHS and health care.
“One of the things which is clear, if you model out the epidemic, is you will get 50% of all the cases over a three-week period and 95% of the cases over a nine-week period, if it follows the trajectory we think it’s likely to.
“If all of those were spaced out on the NHS over two or three years, that would be easily manageable, but it’s the fact they are so heavily concentrated.”
Asked by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt why the Department of Health was no longer providing daily regional information on the location of new cases, Prof Whitty said: “We had a bit of a communications fumble on this.”
He said the plan was, in the medium term, for the Department of Health to provide “a lot more information with maps and other things” and a “dashboard” of cases.
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These actions will help you protect yourself and others. Get more informationâ¶ï¸ https://t.co/g0KQvkZ2Ro pic.twitter.com/QjBRRMqU8n
But he said some people in the UK with coronavirus had suffered vilification, adding: “I am not in favour of going down to street level or ‘you’re within 100 metres of a coronavirus (case)’ because I think that is the wrong approach in this country.”
Asked about transmission, Prof Whitty said there is “some risk of transmission” from touching handrails and hard surfaces for up to 72 hours.
But he said: “Just touching it will not give you the virus: it is if you touch it and then touch your face, having not washed your hands between them.
“So, if you go on to the Tube and touch the rail, that’s fine, but just be aware of what you do with your hands – don’t touch your face, wash your hands, and then you can do what you like.”
Prof Whitty suggested that mass school closures may only have a limited impact on the spread of the virus, but it would be for ministers to make the “quite difficult judgment” on whether to order headteachers to shut down.