UK Coronavirus response has moved to second phase, Chief Medical Officer says

The UK's response to Coronavirus has "mainly" moved to its second phase, the Chief Medical Officer for England declared today.

Prof Chris Whitty said authorities are now chiefly in the "delay" rather than the "contain" phase of the outbreak, which cases the illness COVID-19.

He said officials are still trying to contain the 87 cases in the UK, but are working on the assumption it has got out of containment and there will be more cases confirmed today and in the coming days.

He added: "We need to be realistic … containing looks pretty optimistic."

Prof Whitty made the comments while giving evidence to the Commons Health and Social Care Committee. He said: "We have moved from a situation where we are mainly in contain, with some delay built in, to we are now mainly delay."


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The government's plan has four stages – contain, delay, research, mitigate.

The 'delay' phase – aimed at pushing back the peak of the outbreak until summer, when there's less NHS pressure – is when "population distancing" measures could start to kick in such as encouraging people to work from home and cancelling large gatherings.

Later stages could see a fifth of people off work at the same time – with troops on the streets, sports matches banned, police abandoning low-level crime, makeshift morgues and an army of NHS staff out of retirement.

Prof Whitty said the delay phase would move the peak of cases away from the "winter pressures on the NHS" and allow more time for research.

A third reason is the possibility that – as with flu and colds – there could be a seasonal element which means the rate of transmission would go down in summer.

Prof Whitty said there was not a sudden "step move" from the contain phase to the delay phase but "we are putting greater and greater priority on the elements of this which are delay".

"For the early stages of delay, contain and delay are very similar, not quite the same. They are largely around finding early cases, isolating them, following their chains of transmission, where necessary isolating those people," he said.

But as time goes by there would be measures that involved "changes to society", he said.

There are now 93,090 confirmed cases of the virus – 80,422 of them in China – and almost 3,200 deaths.

Prof Whitty said the number of new cases in China were "coming down really quite rapidly now" but there were at least three other major outbreaks in South Korea, Iran and Italy.

He added: "We have to assume some of the countries that are not reporting cases currently do have outbreaks, but are not aware of them or are not reporting them."

Prof Whitty said it was "highly likely" there is onward transmission already in the UK. "We should work on the assumption it is here, at very low levels in this point in time," he said.

Predicting more UK cases within hours, he said: "I’m expecting more today and expecting more over the next few weeks."

Parliamentary authorities are in daily talks over whether to close the House of Commons and Lords and the Speakers have met the Chief Medical Officer.

Prof Whitty said he was not advising Parliament to shut, adding: "I don’t see personally any reason why the House of Commons and House of Lords are a more dangerous environment for people to move in than other ones.

"But there are some particular peculiarities to this House, as with any other environment."

He singled out elderly people or those with underlying health problems – and the House of Lords has an average age of around 70.

In later stages of the outbreak "we may make some advice for people who are older citizens or have pre-existing health conditions to avoid crowded areas and so on," he said. "That might include individual MPs, individual members of the House of Lords."

This breaking news story is being updated.

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