Boris Johnson will set out the Government’s plan to tackle the spread of coronavirus, as he insisted ministers were “ready to take necessary steps” to contain the disease.
The Prime Minister said it is “highly likely” that the virus will spread more widely in the coming days and weeks, and sought to reassure the public that “every possible preparation” is being made.
He will launch the plan on Tuesday at a Downing Street press conference, alongside the chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
Measures are expected to include a “war room” being set up in the Cabinet Office to bring together communications experts and scientists from across Government, and the NHS to roll out a public information campaign.
Unnecessary travel may be discouraged and working from home encouraged if the virus spreads, as part of a “social distancing” strategy to delay the peak of the outbreak until later in the year when the weather is warmer.
Retired doctors and nurses could be asked to return to work, and emergency indemnity coverage could be provided for healthcare workers.
Whitehall departments will have a designated ministerial virus lead to oversee the response to the global threat of the virus – such as on schools or businesses.
A major public information campaign will be launched later in the week setting out how the public can help to limit the spread of the virus, including washing hands regularly with soap and water.
And legislation allowing the Government to use extra powers to help control the virus is expected to go through Parliament by the end of the month.
Mr Johnson said: “It is highly likely coronavirus will spread more widely in the coming days and weeks, which is why we’re making every possible preparation.
“We have agreed a plan, which I will set out in detail… so if the virus should spread, we are ready to take necessary steps to contain it and protect the most vulnerable.
“But we can all continue to do our bit to fight this virus – by washing our hands with soap and water for the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.”
Speaking to ITV News on Tuesday, the Health Secretary said the action plan’s implementation will not depend on how many people in the UK have the virus.
“There isn’t a precise number that leads to the switch”, he said, “because a lot of it depends on what happens in other countries as well”.
“We don’t have an exact figure, but that isn’t because we’re holding that back, it’s because the scientific judgement on when we move from trying to contain this virus into trying to delay and mitigate its onset here, that decision will be a scientific judgement based in part on the decisions of others around the world,” he added.
When asked how long it would be before the virus could cause school closures and the cancellation of events such as football matches, Mr Hancock said “in this very early stage there are several weeks before this [infection] becomes very widespread”.
He added: “Right now the advice is not to cancel big events, that’s the clear scientific advice, it doesn’t have any impact now.
“We’re not ruling out doing that later.”
He said the advice was the same with school closures, unless there is a positive case of somebody in that establishment, “then schools should not be closing”.
Despite saying on Sunday it was now “inevitable” that the deadly virus would “become endemic” in the UK, the Health Secretary did not say any extra emergency funding had been set aside to help the NHS.
He said “it really isn’t about the funding” but added how the government would be “open” to providing the service with more cash in the future if necessary.
Boris Johnson agreed that Covid-19 would like spread, but said there is a plan to protect the public for when it does.
Also on Monday, the Prime Minister chaired an emergency Cobra meeting, aimed at containing the coronavirus outbreak, held shortly before four more people in England were confirmed as having the disease – raising the total to 39 in the UK.
All of them had recently travelled to Italy, a growing hot spot for the disease in Europe. More than 1,600 cases have been reported in Italy.
With global markets hit by the spread of Covid-19, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to use his Budget next week to outline measures to support the economy, having ordered officials to work up plans to bolster the public health response, businesses and the economy.
All the new UK cases announced on Monday were people who had recently travelled to Italy, which is experiencing the biggest outbreak in Europe.
British Airways said it has cancelled hundreds of flights in March, including from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City Airports.
Ryanair has also reduced flights on some routes, in particular to and from Italy, by up to 25 per cent due to a drop in demand.
Globally more than 90,000 cases of the disease have been confirmed, with more than 3,000 deaths.