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Boris Johnson has warned of “many more” coronavirus deaths as the government announced its plans to “delay the peak” of the spread.
It comes after an emergency Cobra meeting held by Johnson in Downing Street on Thursday afternoon.
Speaking at a Number 10 press conference afterwards, Johnson:
Warned families “are going to lose loved ones before their time”
Called the outbreak “the worst public health crisis for a generation”
Asked people with coronavirus symptoms, “however mild”, to stay at home for at least seven days
Ruled out the closure of schools for the time being, as he stressed the most “draconian” measures must not be triggered too early
The prime minister said: “This is the worst public health crisis for a generation. Some people compare it to seasonal flu, alas that is not right. Owing to the lack of immunity, this is more dangerous.
“We have a clear plan that we are now working through.
“If we delay the peak even by a few weeks, our NHS will be in a stronger state as the weather improves and fewer people suffer respiratory diseases.
“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.”
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The government’s escalation comes after the number of UK cases reached 590, up 134 from Wednesday’s figure of 456. There have been 10 deaths.
Delay is the second of four phases in the government’s coronavirus action plan.
It focuses on slowing the spread across the country and pushing it away from the winter season, when the impact is higher.
As well saying people showing symptoms – a persistent cough or fever – should stay at home for a week, Johnson urged people over 70 not to go on cruise ships, and for schools not to take pupils on international trips.
He warned of “severe disruption across our country for many months”, though the government will not yet ban large-scale public events such as sporting fixtures.
Meanwhile, it has no plans to close schools, Johnson added.
The UK had previously been in the “contain” phase, which aimed to prevent coronavirus taking hold for as long as possible.
The escalation to “delay” had been announced by Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon before the press conference, to the reported fury of Number 10.
Why is the delay phase important?
The government has said in its action plan: “If the peak of the outbreak can be delayed until the warmer months, we can reduce significantly the risk of overlapping with seasonal flu and other challenges (societal or medical) that the colder months bring.”
People can take many measures themselves, including washing their hands more and ensuring they stay at home if they are showing any symptoms.
However, other actions could eventually be enforced on the public, including school closures, reducing large-scale gatherings and encouraging greater home working.
The delay phase also buys time for drug testing and development of vaccines.
What are the next phases after ‘delay’?
The third phase is “research”. his will seek “better understanding of the virus and the actions that will lessen its effect on the UK population” and include further development of drugs and vaccines.
The fourth is “mitigate”, where the authorities’ key focus will be on caring for those who become ill and supporting hospitals.
An increase in deaths is likely during this stage, particularly “among vulnerable and elderly groups”.
Minimising the impact of the disease on society, public services and the economy is also a priority. However, the government has warned key public services could be affected by staff absences.