Coronavirus: Government doing 'everything in its power' to delay spread of infection

Kate McCann, political correspondent

Millions of volunteers could be given four weeks off work to help take the strain off the health service in the event the coronavirus outbreak becomes a pandemic, the government has announced.

Three million experienced people who offer their time to health or social care services for free would have their paid employment protected for up to a month to ensure patients can be properly cared for, under plans proposed by Downing Street.

Ministers are considering a range of different options to manage the spread of the virus, which is so far responsible for the deaths of two elderly people in the UK. Both had underlying health problems.

The total number of people in the UK who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 is 211, after two more confirmed infections in Wales.

They recently returned from northern Italy and it brings the total number of cases in Wales to four. The vast majority of confirmed infections are in England.

Cases are expected to continue to rise as health professionals have become unable to track where some new patients have contracted the virus.

Alongside measures for a three-million strong volunteer force, ministers are also looking at increased use of video-conferencing facilities within courts to make sure trials can go ahead, and the possibility of allowing retired NHS staff to work in the health service again on a temporary basis.

An extra 500 call centre staff have also been recruited to cope with high demand for the NHS 111 service, as people call in to check their symptoms rather than attend a medical practice.

On the possibility of using retired doctors Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, told Sky News: "I think it is a good idea as long as we do it carefully."

Speaking to the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme, he said: "Those doctors, because they would likely to be a higher risk group, would not do face-to-face patient contact but there's lots of other things they can do, like managing 111, providing online care for patients.

"I am confident they would respond positively. That's what doctors are trained for. Doctors tend to respond very positively in states of emergency."

Prof Marshall also believed it was likely routine operations such as knee and hip operations would be cancelled to allow the NHS to focus on responding to the coronavirus.

"Clearly a great inconvenience for patients, but not life or death", he said.

He added: "The NHS is very good at dealing with crises like this. It's proved that time and time again in the past.

"It doesn't mean that there's no implications for routine procedures, for example."

The government's plans will form part of a COVID-19 emergency bill which will be rushed through parliament shortly.

It will allow it to make the changes needed if and when experts decide the UK must move from the containment phase to delay.

In the latter stage those with mild symptoms will be asked to self-isolate, while anyone with a more severe form of the disease will be treated in hospital.

There are concerns the NHS may struggle to cope if the virus spreads quickly, so self-isolation will be used to try to slow it down.

The emergency bill is designed to be scrapped after two years and could also include measures to make it easier for supermarkets to move stock around the country during unsociable hours, as well as possible changes to competition rules to allow food stores to co-ordinate supply and demand information as the outbreak progresses.

Ministers have been meeting with experts and industry bosses over the last few weeks across all departments in a bid to coordinate contingency plans if the virus begins to spread across the country.

Sports bodies will meet with ministers in Whitehall on Monday, as will supermarket bosses and the prime minister will chair an emergency committee designed to oversee preparations.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "We will do all we can to contain coronavirus, but as we know, COVID-19 is spreading across the world, so I want to ensure government is doing everything in its power to be ready to delay and mitigate this threat.

"Public safety is my top priority. Responding to coronavirus is a massive national effort and I'm working with colleagues across government to ensure we have a proportionate emergency bill, with the right measures to deal with the impacts of a widespread COVID-19 outbreak.

"We plan for the worst and work for the best, and the NHS is working 24/7 to fight this virus. Calls to NHS 111 have increased by more than a third and we have already put in place 500 extra staff to help with this increase.

"Every person has a role to play in managing the spread of COVID-19 - whether that's washing your hands more often for 20 seconds or catching your sneezes."

His comments came as former chancellor Philip Hammond said the spread of the disease had the potential to push the UK into a recession, and suggested it could pose a greater risk to the economy than a no-deal Brexit.

The former Tory MP told the Sunday Times the government needed to address a "critical and structural weakness in just-in-time supply chains" which he said have been exposed by the impact of the coronavirus on businesses.

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The confirmed infections in England include 38 in London; 30 in the South East; 25 in the South West; 26 in the North West; 18 in the North East and Yorkshire; 17 in the Midlands; 16 in the East of England, and 14 where the locations have not yet been established.

There have been five more infections in Scotland, taking the number of cases there to 16.

The Department of Health said more than 21,000 people had been tested for the virus.

The family of the second person to have died in the UK to coronavirus has paid tribute to a "truly loving and wonderful" husband, dad, granddad and great-granddad.

In a statement on Saturday, they said their 83-year-old relative was "dearly loved" and that he "would go to any length to support and protect his family".

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