The UK is expected to move formally from the “contain” to “delay” phase of its coronavirus strategy, after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic.
And government officials confirmed on Wednesday evening that a cabinet minister is self-isolating and has been tested for coronavirus. It is understood the minister is still awaiting the test results.
The status change in the fight against the virus will be announced on Thursday after Boris Johnson, prime minister, has chaired a meeting of Cobra, the government’s emergency planning committee, according to Downing Street officials.
It could mean the introduction of measures such as the temporary closure of schools and colleges and a ban on some large public gatherings. Home-working could be encouraged as part of the formal move to a new phase that would be signed off by government medical experts.
However, chancellor Rishi Sunak said on Thursday the government saw no need to follow US president Donald Trump’s move and ban of from most European nations from entering the country for 30 days.
“We haven’t believed that that’s the right thing to do, the evidence here doesn’t support that,” he told the BBC. “What we are trying to do is contain the virus while recognising that it is now likely that it will spread more significantly.
“The US is still deciding the details of what exactly that means. As I talked about yesterday, there will be an impact on the demand side of our economy as people are unable to spend in the way they normally would and travel, but it also affects the supply chains for businesses and that impacts the supply side of our economy.”
For the next phase, the strategy will be to try and slow the spread of the virus to push the peak into the summer when the stretched NHS will be under less pressure.
Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, has repeatedly warned against the premature introduction of such “social distancing” measures for fear the public could become blasé about the measures by the time they were really needed.
Speaking at a conference organised by the Nuffield Trust late last month, he said that while “flattening the peak” of the outbreak would be good for the NHS, “some of the things we would have to do would come at a social cost”. He also suggested that any measures would have to continue for more than two months.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said on Wednesday that the authorities had resolved to “keep parliament open” despite the news that, as well as the test on a cabinet minister, junior health minister Nadine Dorries had been diagnosed with the virus, becoming the first member of parliament to date to be infected.
Edward Argar, another health minister, has also been advised to self-isolate.
Mr Hancock also confirmed to the House of Commons that the government would seek next week to pass emergency legislation to help deal with a potential widespread outbreak of the disease. He said he would hold discussions with opposition parties on the content of any new laws.
Mr Hancock said the peak of any outbreak in the UK was expected “in a matter of a couple of months”.
He said: “I just want to slightly correct the point about the deputy chief medical officer who said that in the next couple of weeks we may see the numbers starting to rise fast to their peak.
“We do not expect numbers to peak in the next fortnight, we expect numbers to continue to rise after that and the peak would be in a matter of a couple of months, rather than a matter of a couple of weeks. This is a marathon and not a sprint.”
Ms Dorries’ infection raises the pressure on authorities to tighten access to parliament as preparations ramp up in anticipation of “many thousands” of cases expected at the peak of the epidemic.
The health department confirmed Ms Dorries had first exhibited symptoms last week, when she attended a Downing Street reception with Mr Johnson. The minister, who has now placed herself in self-isolation, has met hundreds of people in Westminster over the past week.
Number 10 officials said Mr Johnson was not suffering symptoms and would not be tested for the disease. They added that he had not been in close contact with Ms Dorries and that current advice stated you had to be within two metres of someone to pass the disease on.
Officials are seeking to identify the names of everyone with whom Ms Dorries has come into contact in recent days and Public Health England will contact anyone they believe to be at risk.
Meanwhile, the Treasury was given a deep cleaning on Wednesday after the partner of an official working in the building tested positive for the virus. The official has been tested and does not have the disease but is self-isolating at home. Downing Street said that after receiving expert medical advice, Number 10 would not be deep-cleaned.
The health department said on Wednesday that the number of British cases had risen to 460, up from 373 a day earlier. Eight people have now died of the disease in the UK.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief, said on Wednesday that the disease had become a global pandemic as he urged governments around the world to take “urgent and aggressive action”.
“Several countries have demonstrated that this virus can be suppressed and controlled,” he said. “The challenge for many countries dealing with large clusters or community transmission is not whether they can do the same, it is whether they will.”
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