Doctors could be brought out of retirement in a bid to fight coronavirus if the UK outbreak worsens, the government have announced.
Ministers have confirmed, as part of contingency measures for a pandemic situation, that “broader measures” as part of a “battle plan” will be considered to maximise public safety.
The plans include an emergency registration of retired health professionals and. relaxing rules around school class sizes in case teachers are forced to self-isolate.
Other proposals include potentially recommending more employees to work from home, discouraging “unnecessary travel”, introducing emergency indemnity coverage for healthcare workers to allow them to diagnose or care for those who contract the deadly illness.
23 cases confirmed in the UK
There are currently 23 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK, with experts warning that more patients are likely to test positive as screening of those with symptoms continues.
Three more patients in England tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday, including a staff member at an infant school in Berkshire.
Willow Bank Infant School headteacher Michelle Masters informed parents on Saturday that a staff member had tested positive for the strain of coronavirus known as Covid-19.
In an email, Masters urged parents to “remain calm and follow the recommended hygiene procedures”.
“The school will be shut for some days to allow for a deep clean and to ensure that the risk of infection remain(s) low,” she said.
Health officials are also tracing anyone who had close contact with a patient from the Cotswolds area, while one patient was identified in Gloucestershire and another was confirmed in Hertfordshire.
Two of the patients had recently travelled back from Italy while the other had returned from Asia, chief medical officer professor Chris Whitty said.
The Irish Republic reported its first case of the virus on Saturday, where a man from the east of the country tested positive after travelling from an affected area in Italy.
‘Social distancing’ measures planned
Ministers are hoping that a so-called “social distancing” approach could delay the peak of the outbreak until later in the year – potentially helping to combat the virus during warmer weather conditions when it will spread less easily.
The plan, due to be issued across all four nations of the UK, is based on the government’s existing contingency plans for responding to a pandemic flu outbreak, but adapted for Covid-19.
Fears of a wider outbreak in the UK have worsened after a person diagnosed on Friday was found to have contracted the disease without travelling abroad.
Expert teams are actively tracing those who have come into contact with the person, the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed.
The PM said: “Coronavirus may very well be a challenge in the weeks and months ahead.
“But I have no doubt that with the help of the NHS and its incomparable staff this country will get through it – and beat it.”
As part of the bid to step up government preparations, Boris Johnson has announced he will establish a “war room” in the Cabinet Office featuring a cross-Whitehall team of communications experts who are responsible for rolling out a public information campaign.
A publicity campaign will be unveiled featuring posters and social media adverts to reinforce the importance of hand-washing for 20 seconds or more with water and soap in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
The PM, meanwhile, will chair his first emergency Cobra meeting about the outbreak on Monday. He has been criticised for not chairing the session earlier.
The chief medical officer and the health secretary Matt Hancock are also expected to give more regular press briefings as of next week to reassure the public.
Other policies being brought in include designating a minister in every Whitehall department to be responsible for its response to coronavirus.
Hancock said: “Public safety is our top priority. Our battle plan will ensure that as this escalates every part of government is working together to share the responsibility of tackling the health, economic, and social impacts of Covid-19.”
Britons affected by the virus abroad
Elsewhere, the husband of British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe believes she has contracted coronavirus at the prison where she is being held.
Richard Ratcliffe said his wife has repeatedly asked to be tested for the virus at the Evin prison in Tehran after suffering from a “strange cold”.
Although there are currently no confirmed cases at the prison, Covid-19 has spread rapidly across Iran – with at least 43 dead amid 593 patients identified.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has called on the Iranian government to “immediately allow” health professionals into the prison to assess British-Iranian dual nationals.
Holiday operator Tui said it would be making arrangements for Britons at a coronavirus-stricken hotel in Tenerife who test negative to return to the UK.
Guests at the four-star H10 Costa Adeje Palace hotel were told they would be in quarantine until March 10, after at least four holidaymakers were diagnosed with Covid-19.
Spanish authorities have since said the risk of infection for any Britons staying at the hotel was low.
It comes amid reports that a fifth man at the hotel has tested positive for coronavirus.
Deaths reported in the US, Australia, and Thailand
The US on Saturday reported its first death from the disease, a man in his 50s in Washington state, where officials said two of the state’s three cases have links to a nursing home with dozens of residents showing disease symptoms.
Although most Americans face a low risk from the virus, more US deaths could be imminent following the nation’s first, CNN quoted vice president Mike Pence as saying.
“We know there will be more cases,” Pence told the broadcaster in a clip released on Saturday, echoing Trump’s earlier comments that additional cases in America were “likely.”
Travellers from Italy and South Korea would face additional screening, Trump and top officials told a White House news briefing, warning Americans against travelling to coronavirus-affected regions in both countries.
There is a complete US travel ban on arrivals from Iran, expanded to include any foreign nationals who have visited the country in the last 14 days.
Thailand reported its first death from the virus on Sunday, while in Australia, a former passenger on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined off Japan died in the western city of Perth.
Churches closed in South Korea as many held online services instead, with authorities looking to rein in public gatherings, as 376 new infections took the tally to 3,526 cases.
Tehran has ordered schools shut until Tuesday and extended the closure of universities and a ban on concerts and sports events for a week. Authorities have also banned visits to hospitals and nursing homes as the country’s case load hit nearly 600.
One Iranian lawmaker, elected on February 21, has died from the disease along with more than 40 other Iranians, and several high-ranking officials have tested positive for the virus.
Schools and universities in Italy, which is experiencing Europe’s worst outbreak of the disease, will stay closed for a second consecutive week in three northern regions. The country has reported more than 1,100 cases and 29 deaths.
Analysts have warned that the outbreak looks set to shunt Italy’s fragile economy into its fourth recession in 12 years, with many businesses in the wealthy north close to a standstill and hotels reporting a wave of cancellations.