Coronavirus: 10,000 may have COVID-19 in UK as measures ramped up to contain spread

Sam Coates, deputy political editor, and Aubrey Allegretti, political reporter
·4-min read

Coronavirus is the worst public health crisis in a generation and "many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time", Boris Johnson has said.

The prime minister said measures that cause "severe disruption across our country for many months" will be rolled out but it is vital they are not introduced too early.

He declared the government is entering its second phase of the response to COVID-19, moving from trying to contain the virus to delaying its spread.

Anyone with a new persistent cough or a high temperature should now self-isolate for seven days, according to Downing Street's latest advice.

So far, 10 people in the UK have died who had COVID-19 - the prevalent strain of coronavirus - and the World Health Organisation has declared a global pandemic.

The number of confirmed cases in the UK reached 590 on Thursday - up by 134 in the last 24 hours.

But 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.

In a sombre address following a lunchtime COBRA meeting, Mr Johnson said all school trips overseas should be cancelled and people over 70-years-old with serious medical conditions should not to go on cruises.

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Ministers are "considering" banning major public events such as sporting fixtures, he added.

But the prime minister said schools should not close unless they are specifically told to.

Mr Johnson defended his decision not to go further and copy countries like Ireland, which is shutting schools, saying he was being guided by the science and the measures were right for the present phase of the pandemic.

He warned that the most dangerous period was still weeks away as he stressed that the "lines of defence" must be deployed at the right time to maximise their effect.

"The most important task will be to protect our elderly and most vulnerable people during the peak weeks when there is the maximum risk of exposure to the disease and when the NHS will be under the most pressure," the prime minister explained.

"So the most dangerous period is not now but some weeks away depending on how fast it spreads."

He 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."

Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said up to 80% of all people in the UK could at some point get COVID-19 but cautioned that was currently an "entirely speculative number".

New government advice published online said people should visit the NHS111 website rather than calling the helpline if possible.

And all those self-isolating at home should try to sleep alone and ask friends and family to help order food and other supplies online or drop them off - but only outside the door.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced gatherings of more than 500 people will be cancelled to ease pressure on the NHS.

The next phase of Whitehall's response plan - "research" - would see the government pivot to learn more about how the virus spreads and how those who are infected can be treated most effectively.

And the fourth and final stage "mitigate" - would see public services including the police and NHS scaled back to a minimum to ensure vulnerable people are protected and health workers are supported in a surge of demand.

Discussion between ministers and the opposition are already under way about emergency legislation.

The laws are likely to give the government power to relax lots of regulations, including allowing larger class sizes, changes to rules on care homes and allowing retired medical professionals to return to work.

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg indicated they could start to be debated in the week beginning 23 March.

The Electoral Commission has meanwhile called for mayoral, council and police and crime commissioner elections due to take place in May to be pushed back to the autumn.

And the next round of Brexit trade talks will not go ahead as planned, UK and EU negotiators announced, saying they may now be done over video conference.