Doctors and other health professionals could be brought out of retirement to help fight coronavirus as part of emergency Government planning for if the UK outbreak worsens.
Ministers have confirmed, as part of contingency measures for if the spread of coronavirus escalates into a pandemic, that “broader measures” will be considered to keep the public safe and ensure the NHS can handle the added strain.
The plans include a Dad’s Army-style emergency registration of health professionals who have retired, as well as relaxing rules around school class sizes in case teachers are off ill or forced to self-isolate.
Other proposals include introducing emergency indemnity coverage for healthcare workers to allow them to diagnose or care for those who contract the deadly illness.
Ministers are also considering whether to recommend more employees work from home and discourage “unnecessary travel”.
The so-called “social distancing” approach is part of a strategy designed to 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.
The UK currently has 23 confirmed cases of coronavirus but fears of a wider outbreak worsened after a person diagnosed on Friday as having contracted the disease did so 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 Prime Minister 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.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and 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.
And there are to be further emergency Cobra meetings planned for this week, officials confirmed, on top of the gathering to be chaired by the PM.
Coronavirus will be added as a standing item to the weekly Cabinet meeting agenda, Downing Street said.
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Top tips for limiting the spread of germs like #coronavirus:▶️ Catch sneezes and coughs in a tissue▶️ Bin tissues straight after use▶️ Kill germs by frequently washing you hands with soap
— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) February 29, 2020
Mr 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.
“The Government and the NHS are working 24/7 to fight this virus, but cannot do this alone.
“Every single person has a role to play in helping to manage the spread of the virus – whether that’s washing your hands more often, catching your sneezes, and following clinical advice by calling NHS 111 not going to A&E if you develop symptoms.”