Boris Johnson announces coronavirus 'battle plan' for retired doctors

1 March 2020, 08:17 | Updated: 1 March 2020, 12:16

Boris Johnson has announced the "battle plan"
Boris Johnson has announced the "battle plan". Picture: PA

The government has presented its "battle plan" to deal with coronavirus after the number of UK cases rose to 23.

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 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.

Matt Hancock has not ruled out shutting down cities
Matt Hancock has not ruled out shutting down cities. Picture: PA

It comes as the Health Secretary has not ruled out shutting down cities if the coronavirus outbreak escalates as he outlined a new "battle plan" by the Government.

Matt Hancock said despite a "huge economic and social downside", following China's lead and isolating UK cities if the situation worsens currently remains on the table.

He conceded it was "inevitable" that the deadly virus would continue to spread after three new cases were identified in the UK, including a staff member at an infant school.

On isolating entire cities, as Chinese authorities did with Wuhan, Mr Hancock said: "There is clearly a huge economic and social downside to that.

"But we don't take anything off the table at this stage because you have to make sure you have all the tools available if that is what is necessary."

The Health Secretary confirmed that "population distancing measures", such as banning public gatherings and cancelling football matches, could be considered by the Government, while closing schools may be "necessary".

He said: "I'm not saying any of these are decisions we have taken but they are things we don't rule out."

Emergency powers designed to restrict Covid-19 if it becomes endemic, due to be revealed this week, would only be "temporary", said Mr Hancock.

He added the NHS was ready to deal with further cases of coronavirus, with more than 5,000 emergency critical care beds available.

The number of UK cases is rising
The number of UK cases is rising. Picture: PA

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.

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."

As of 9am on Saturday, more than 10,000 people in the UK had been tested for the virus, also known as Covid-19 - with 23 confirmed as positive.