Covid-19 “is the worst public health crisis for a generation”, the Prime Minister has said as the Government’s top scientist warned that up to 10,000 people in the UK are already infected.
Boris Johnson introduced new measures to try and protect the elderly and vulnerable, saying anyone with coronavirus symptoms, however mild, such as a continuous cough or high temperature, must now stay at home for seven days.
The advice also applies to children, meaning parents could need to take time off to look after their youngsters at home.
The PM said school trips abroad should be stopped, while people over 70 with serious medical conditions should not go on cruises.
Mr Johnson told reporters at a press conference in Downing Street that there was no need to close schools now as the scientific advice “is that this could do more harm than good”.
He said this may change at some point while in the future, if somebody is taken ill, their entire household could be told to self-isolate.
That measure is not being advised yet, the PM said, but he added: “I want to signal now that this is coming down the track.”
Some people compare it to seasonal flu, alas that is not rightBoris Johnson
Mr Johnson said families would continue to “lose loved ones before their time” as the coronavirus outbreak worsens.
“We’ve all got to be clear, this is the worst public health crisis for a generation,” said the PM.
“Some people compare it to seasonal flu, alas that is not right.
“Due to the lack of immunity this disease is more dangerous.
“It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
Stressing the need to protect others, Mr Johnson said: “If you have coronavirus symptoms however mild, either a new continuous cough or a high temperature, then you should stay at home for at least seven days to protect others and help slow the spread of the disease.”
He said the Government was also “considering the question of banning major public events such as sporting fixtures”.
Even though the science showed it would have little impact, such fixtures placed a burden on public services.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, said the actual number of people infected in the UK at the moment could be between 5,000 and 10,000.
“Currently we are on a trajectory that looks as though it is about four weeks or so behind Italy and some other countries in Europe,” he said, adding that more than 20 people in the UK with the virus were in intensive care units.
The PM spoke as:
– The FTSE 100 closed the day down by more than one 10th as fears over Covid-19 sparked the index’s worst bloodbath since 1987
– The World Health Organisation said it was “deeply concerned” some countries are not handling the pandemic with “the level of political commitment needed to control it”
– Several universities said they were ending face-to-face lessons
– The Electoral Commission recommended local elections in May be postponed
– First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said mass gatherings over 500 people in Scotland are set to be restricted
– Ireland announced the closure of schools and tourist attractions until the end of the month.
– Cruise companies began postponing trips
– Hollywood star Tom Hanks announced he and wife Rita Wilson have been diagnosed with coronavirus
– Philip Jansen, chief executive of BT Group, was confirmed to have tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday afternoon
The chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, said, in agreement with counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the risk rating from coronavirus has been raised to high.
Explaining the advice to self-isolate for seven days, Prof Whitty acknowledged it was “something which will interfere with their lives and interfere with their work and their social life in quite significant ways”.
But he said “it helps to protect older and more vulnerable people” and would also reduce, and possibly delay, the peak of the epidemic, making it easier for the NHS to cope.
The Prime Minister added: “There is no escaping the reality that these measures will cause severe disruption across our country for many months.
“The best scientific advice is that this will help us slow the disease and save lives.”
In a message to the elderly, Mr Johnson said that although the disease was “particularly dangerous” for them, the vast majority would experience “a mild-to-moderate illness”.
But he said the most dangerous period is some weeks away, while Prof Whitty said the elderly would in future be told to stay home more though not yet.
The Government has moved to the delay phase of its four-part plan.
It came as two more deaths were announced in British hospitals and the number of people in the UK who have officially tested positive for coronavirus reached 596.
Ten people have died in the UK after testing positive for Covid-19.
The Prime Minister defended the UK’s approach to the pandemic, which has been less dramatic than those actions taken by the US, Italy or Ireland.
Dr Jenny Harries, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, came into Downing Street to answer some of the most commonly asked questions on coronavirus. pic.twitter.com/KCdeHsaz6a— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) March 11, 2020
“The measures that I have discussed today… staying at home if you think you have the symptoms, your whole household staying at home, looking after the elderly – making sure the elderly and vulnerable stay at home – these are the three most powerful defensive lines,” he said.
“We think it’s very important to maintain public trust and confidence in what we are doing, throughout this challenging time, always to be guided by the best possible scientific advice.”
Mr Johnson acknowledged that Scotland was already banning mass gatherings.
“We are not saying no to that sort of measures, of course not,” Mr Johnson said. “We are keeping it up our sleeves.”
But he said it was important to get the timing right, while Prof Whitty said such measures were needed “at the last point it is reasonable so people maintain their energy and enthusiasm”.
Prof Whitty said the NHS will alter its approach to testing for coronavirus, with only those at hospitals to be formally examined.
“It is no longer necessary for us to identify every case and we will move from having testing mainly done in homes and outpatients and walk-in centres, to a situation where people who are remaining at home do not need testing,” he said.
Sir Patrick Vallance said the modelling predicted a 20-25% reduction in the peak of the epidemic by getting people to stay at home for a week if they have mild symptoms.
Moving to whole household isolation adds an extra 25% reduction, while preventing the elderly from getting infected could reduce death rates by 20-30%.