Coronavirus in UK could see schools close for months and mass public gatherings axed

28 February 2020, 07:36

A man wears a face mask on a street in London
A man wears a face mask on a street in London. Picture: Getty

By Asher McShane

Health officials are drawing up plans that could see schools closed for two months if the scale of the coronavirus infection in the UK increases dramatically.

Public events including football matches, concerts and other gatherings could also be cancelled, according to the chief medical officer.

Professor Chris Whitty has refused to rule anything out in his planning to deal with coronavirus.

He said: 'We're not saying we will do them, we have to look at them and say, 'How likely are they to work?' 

He also warned that onward transmission between people in the UK was "just a matter of time in my view".

Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt told LBC this morning that coronavirus is going to have a profound impact on the UK.

He said: "We are at an absolute crunch moment.

"The news that the financial markets are really being impacted - the Dow Jones down 10% in just one week - is an indication that this is no longer something that is just happening in one country and it's going to be contained there and we'll be able to carry on with our lives as normal.

"This is going to have a very profound impact."

He also said that he has confidence in the NHS to deal with the issue, saying: "If I was going to choose a country in the world to be in when there is a pandemic, I would choose the UK because the NHS is very very good at preparing for these situations."

Yesterday, the total number of Covid-19 cases in the UK rose to 16, after three people were diagnosed on Thursday.

It also emerged yesterday that over £150bn had been wiped off global markets due to coronavirus.

The first positive test for coronavirus in Northern Ireland was confirmed at a briefing in Belfast.

Northern Ireland's Public Health Agency said it was "working rapidly" to identify anyone the patient came into contact with to prevent a further spread.

The patient had recently returned from northern Italy and had previously been in Dublin.

Another of the new cases, a parent at a Buxton primary school in Derbyshire, contracted the virus in Tenerife, where 168 Britons are being kept in a hotel on the south west of the island.

People wearing protective masks on the London underground
People wearing protective masks on the London underground. Picture: PA

The third patient also contracted the virus in Italy, which has become the worst affected country in Europe with more than 400 cases and 14 deaths.

Speaking at the Belfast press conference, Dr Michael McBride, chief medical officer for Northern Ireland, said the test outcome has now been sent to Public Health England laboratories for verification.

Dr McBride said: "We have been planning for the first positive case in Northern Ireland and have made clear that it was a question of when not if.

"We have robust infection control measures in place which enable us to respond immediately.

"Our health service is used to managing infections and would assure the public that we are prepared.

"Our advice to the public remains the same.

"Members of the public who have visited affected regions and have symptoms are advised to self-isolate at home and contact their GP in the first instance."

He added the case was not linked to a school trip to Italy.

One of the patients in England has been taken to the specialist infectious diseases centre at the Royal Liverpool Hospital and the other to the Royal Free Hospital in London.

The NI Public Health Agency would not confirm where their patient was being held.

In Derbyshire, Burbage Primary School in Buxton remains closed after a parent there was diagnosed with the illness.

Dr Fu-Meng Khaw, centre director for Public Health England (PHE) East Midlands, said PHE was contacting people who had close contact with the patient, and confirmed they were infected whilst in Tenerife.

He added: "Close contacts will be given health advice about symptoms and emergency contact details to use if they become unwell in the 14 days after contact with the confirmed cases.

"This tried and tested method will ensure we are able to minimise any risk to them and the wider public.

"We are aware that Burbage Primary School in Buxton has taken the decision to close today.

"My team have spoken to the school, assessed the risk and confirmed that there is currently no information to suggest that there is any increased health risk to any pupils or staff at the school and no public health reason to remain closed at the current time."

Buxton Medical Practice in Derbyshire, a two-minute drive from the school, also urged patients not to attend for appointments on Thursday due to the confirmed case.

Meanwhile, 168 Britons remain confined to the H10 Costa Adeje Palace in Tenerife after at least four guests were diagnosed with coronavirus.

Around 50 of the Britons will be allowed to leave if they wish.

The Minister of Health in Tenerife said around 130 of guests from 11 different countries will be able to leave the hotel if they arrived on Monday, after infected guests had already left.

Meanwhile, two Britons were among eight people being monitored on board a cruise ship that was turned back by the Dominican Republic.

A joint statement by the Public Health Ministry and Port Authority on the island said the captain of the Braemar, which is carrying around 1,500 people, reported four Filipinos, two British citizens and two US citizens were under medical observation for symptoms such as fever, coughing, or breathing difficulty.

It comes as England's chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, warned that onward transmission between people in the UK was "just a matter of time in my view".

Speaking at a Nuffield Trust summit, he said: "If this becomes a global epidemic then the UK will get it, and if it does not become a global epidemic, the UK is perfectly capable of containing and getting rid of individual cases leading to onward transmission."

So far in the UK, 7,690 people have been tested for the virus and of the 16 to have tested positive, eight have so far been discharged from hospital.

In China, where the virus originated, 78,497 cases have been reported, including 2,744 deaths.

World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, told a press conference in Geneva on Thursday that coronavirus has the potential to become a global pandemic but this stage had not been reached.

Public health advice remains to wash hands with soap, not rub the face and maintain a distance from people who are coughing and sneezing, he said.