The number of cases of coronavirus in the UK has risen by 30 in the last 24 hours as the government’s response to the outbreak has moved into its second “delay” phase after failing to simply “contain” the disease.
Chief medical officer for England, Professor Chris Whitty, said the delay phase was aimed at pushing back the peak of the epidemic by reducing the spread of the virus.
That could move the peak of cases away from the “winter pressures on the NHS in all four nations of the UK” to the summer months where viruses are less contagious.
It would also allow more time for research into the nature of the Covid-19 virus. The government set out its action plan earlier this week based on four stages - containing the virus, delaying its transmission, researching its origins and mitigating its impact.
Prof Whitty said there would not be a “step move” from the “contain” phase to the “delay” phase but “we are putting greater and greater priority on the elements of this which are delay”.
Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said this afternoon: “We will continue to try to contain this virus. However it is now likely that the virus is going to spread in a significant way.”
Downing Street said officials would “now accelerate work on preparations for the delay phase”.
Prof Whitty said: “For the early stages of delay, contain and delay are very similar, not quite the same. They are largely around finding early cases, isolating them, following their chains of transmission, where necessary isolating those people.”
But as time goes by there would be measures that involved “changes to society”, he said.
Meanwhile, the official number of people testing positive for the virus in the UK as of Thursday morning was 115, up from 85 at the same point on Wednesday, the Department of Health said. Eight of the patients contracted the virus in the UK.
The government has said it could encourage home-working, cancel large-scale gatherings and possibly close schools to slow the spread of the disease and delay the peak of the outbreak until summer, when the health service is under less pressure.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told ITV that Britain’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was meeting to consider options to try to delay the spread of the outbreak ranging from “quite draconian stuff to more targeted interventions.”
Asked whether Britain was close to taking measures such as stopping large public gatherings, Johnson said: “We’ll see what the scientists advise.”
Prof Whitty told the Commons’ Health and Social Care Committee that at the beginning it was hoped that the virus could have been contained mainly within China with a few outbreaks elsewhere and once the authorities got on top of it the Covid-19 would go away.
But, he said: “That is becoming an extraordinarily unlikely long-term outcome.
“We are not completely there and it is important to acknowledge that for ‘contain’ we need to have an international view about what we do about this.
“This is something which we should, in a sense, take the views of other nations as well as our own.
“But I think we need to be realistic about the fact that with so many different outbreaks, containing looks pretty optimistic.”
Prof Whitty added it is “highly likely” there is “community transmission” of the coronavirus in the UK and that he was “expecting more today, and expecting more over the next few weeks”.
“I’m expecting the number only to go up, and there are now several – not large numbers, but several – cases where we cannot see where this has come from in terms of a clear transmission, either because someone has come directly from overseas or because they’ve had a close contact with someone who has recently returned from overseas.
“That I think makes it highly likely therefore that there is some level of community transmission of this virus in the UK now.
“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 added that he had a “reasonably high degree of confidence” that 1% is at the “upper limit” of the mortality rate for coronavirus.
Stating it would be “lucky” to obtain a vaccine in the next year, Prof Whitty suggested that existing drugs could play a role in treating Covid-19.
“Can we find drugs which we have got a licence for, we know the safety, they are widely available and which work against this virus?
“The answer, I think, is going to be yes. They won’t necessarily be perfect drugs but they may be enough to improve the outcomes for the people in the most high-risk groups.”
Smokers are advised to quit as they are deemed more vulnerable to the virus, but Prof Whitty stressed that even for high-risk age groups, catching coronavirus did not mean you would be “a goner”.
He said that firstly “we intend to do what we can to make sure that they are the group that is least affected, as far as we can”.
He added: “Even in the most vulnerable, oldest groups, in the very stressed health service which Hubei was at the point when most of the data come out of, the great majority of people who caught this virus – and not everybody will – survived it, the great majority, over 90%.
“So, I think it’s easy to get a perception that if you are older and you get this virus then you’re a goner – absolutely not, the great majority of people will recover from this virus, even if they are in their 80s.”
It comes amid news that three more patients have tested positive for coronavirus in Scotland taking the total to six, the Scottish government said.
Scotland’s chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood said the new coronavirus patients are from the Forth Valley, Greater Glasgow and Clyde and Grampian areas and are all contacts of known cases.
In a statement, Dr Calderwood said: “Scotland is well equipped to deal with this kind of infection and we are doing everything we can to contain the virus at this stage and minimise the risk to the public.
“Clinicians are now conducting contact tracing, the process of gathering details of the places those who have tested positive visited and the people they have been in contact with.
“Close contact involves either face-to-face contact or spending more than 15 minutes within two metres of an infected person. The risk is very low in situations where someone may have passed a patient on the street or in a shop.
“Health protection teams will contact those who are at risk from the current cases – those who are not contacted are not at risk.”