Boris Johnson has called for a “national effort” to tackle the spread of the coronavirus as his chief medical adviser warned that those displaying mild cold and flu like symptoms would be advised to stay at home.
The Prime Minister warned that while the country was currently in the “contain” phase of the virus, the government was making preparations to move into the next stage – delay – very shortly.
“Containment is very unlikely to work on its own and that is why we are making preparations for a move to the delay phase,” he said at a press conference in Downing Street.
In the delay phase the government will seek to push the peak of the spread in to the summer months when the NHS is better able to cope.
Mr Johnson also warned against panic buying and stockpiling as members of the public rushed to get hold of certain food and items, including toilet paper and hand sanitiser.
“It’s very important that everyone should behave responsibly and think about others, ” he said, adding: “We will make sure we do everything we can to keep supermarkets stocked and keep the economy working.”
Within the next fortnight, anyone with flu-like symptoms will be urged to stay at home for seven days and not infect their workplace.
Professor Chris Whitty told reporters: “We are now very close to the time, probably within the next 10 to 14 days, when the modelling would imply we should move to a situation where everybody with even minor respiratory tract infections or a fever should be self-isolating for a period of seven days.”
There have now been five confirmed deaths from coronavirus in the UK, with 319 cases so far – a number that keeps rising.
Mr Johnson defended the government’s response to the virus following criticism it has taken less aggressive methods to contain the spread than other countries such as Italy.
“While it is absolutely critical in managing the spread of this virus that we take the right decisions at the right time based on the latest and the best evidence, so we mustn’t do things which have no or limited medical benefit, nor things which could turn out actually to be counter-productive, there is no hiding from the fact that the coronavirus outbreak will present significant challenges for the UK just as it does in other countries” he said.
“But if we continue to look out for one another, to pull together in a united and national effort, I have no doubt that we can and will rise to that challenge.”
16 million people in Italy are in a state of lockdown (Image: Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)
The Prime Minister and his two medical leads on coronavirus – Prof Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance – were united in saying the public should not rush to compare the UK response with that taken by other countries.
Italy, the country in Europe worst affected by the outbreak, has put travel restrictions on up to 16 million people in Lombardy and 14 provinces while schools, museums and other public venues have been closed.
Prof Whitty said introducing measures “too early” could lead to people becoming “fatigued”, while Mr Johnson declared: “It’s not what we do, it’s when we do it.”
They repeated the need for the public to carry out simple measures such as washing hands regularly and for 20 seconds, covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze and disposing of used tissues.
While refraining from shaking hands was less important, the PM did say there was a “good reason” not to, because it sent out the message to others that you should wash your hands.