Health Secretary 'very worried' about rare coronavirus-related disease in children

28 April 2020, 14:54

By Asher McShane

Health Secretary Matt Hancock today said he was “very worried” about a rare and potentially fatal new condition that has been identified in a very small number of children in the UK as a result of coronavirus.

After a warning was sent to GPs on Sunday evening, the Health Secretary told Nick Ferrari on LBC this morning: “I am worried about it and we’re looking into it. It’s a new disease that we think may be caused by coronavirus, we’re not sure.”

He stressed that the new disease was “rare”.

Read more: Son of doctor who died from coronavirus asks Matt Hancock for an apology

Read more: Donald Trump says he 'cannot be held responsible' for disinfectant misuse

Read more: McDonalds tests social distancing and PPE for staff as branches prepare to reopen

Read more: the latest on coronavirus - live

He said: “I’m very worried about the early signs that in rare cases there is an impact of an autoimmune response in children that causes a significant disease.

"We put out at the weekend a call across the NHS because some cases of this have been identified, and this call essentially says to doctors in other parts of the country - have you seen this condition?

Matt Hancock said he was very worried about the emergence of a rare new condition in children
Matt Hancock said he was very worried about the emergence of a rare new condition in children. Picture: PA

"And then they collect the information and find out what’s going on.

"We haven’t seen information about this from elsewhere in the world.

"We can spot relatively rare conditions that happen in a number of different hospitals, we are worried about it, we are looking into it.

"It's a fresh, new disease that we think may be caused by coronavirus and the Covid-19 virus.

"We're not 100% sure because some of the people who got it hadn't tested positive. We're doing a lot of research now but it is something we're worried about.

"What I would also stress is that it is rare.

"Although it is very significant for those children who do get it the number of cases is small."

Another doctor told Nick Ferrari there was a "very, very" rare condition affecting children in the UK and that he was aware that around ten children had been taken to hospital with the new condition in the UK.

Guidance was sent to doctors in north London describing “an apparent rise in the number of children of all ages presenting with a multi-system inflammatory state requiring intensive care across London and also in other regions of the UK".

The information was shared by the UK Paediatric Intensive Care Society on Sunday providing guidance for doctors to be alert to certain symptoms in children that may be a sign of something more serious.

It said the effects had been seen in children both with and without coronavirus, but there was evidence that some had had coronavirus previously.

At the daily government briefing on coronavirus yesterday, the medical director of the NHS Professor Stephen Powis said they were looking into it "as a matter of urgency" and England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said it's "entirely plausible" that it is coronavirus.

Read more: Next phase of coronavirus lockdown could see family and friends mixing in 'bubbles'

Read more: Analysis: Boris Johnson’s cautious return to work

Listen & subscribe: Global Player | Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify

A small number of children are reportedly showing symptoms similar to toxic shock syndrome, a severe illness associated with infections, and have blood markers in line with severe Covid-19 in children, the alert states.

They may also have abdominal pain and symptoms of inflammation around the heart.

The alert was sent out by an NHS trust in London and tweeted by the Paediatric Intensive Care Society.

It says GPs should refer children with symptoms including abdominal pain as a 'matter of urgency'.

The alert says: "There is a growing concern that a SARS CoV-2 (Covid-19) related inflammatory syndrome is emerging in children in the UK, or that there may be another, as yet unidentified, infectious pathogen associated with these cases."

It also talks about atypical Kawasaki disease, a condition that mainly affects children under the age of five.

Professor Simon Kenny, the NHS's national clinical director for children and young people, said: "Thankfully Kawasaki-like diseases are very rare, as currently are serious complications in children related to Covid-19, but it is important that clinicians are made aware of any potential emerging links so that they are able to give children and young people the right care fast.

"The advice to parents remains the same: If you are worried about your child for whatever reason, contact NHS 111 or your family doctor for urgent advice, or 999 in an emergency, and if a professional tells you to go to hospital, please go to hospital."

The guidance to GPs is aimed at ensuring they are alert to any potential emerging links so that any children presenting symptoms can get the right care. The NHS said that both Kawasaki-related diseases and covid-related complications in children are very rare, and that there was not yet any confirmed link between the two.

Professor Martin Marshall, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Covid-19 is a new virus, and we are learning more about it all the time, including that certain symptoms can be similar to other diseases.

“GPs are keeping abreast, as far as is possible, of new evidence and information to ensure they can continue to deliver the best possible care to their patients.

“In general practice, at least for the moment, we are encouraged that the cases in children are not increasing, but these particular symptoms sound concerning and we will be working closely with our specialist paediatric colleagues to ensure that we respond appropriately.

“Parents should be reassured that the evidence currently suggests that COVID-19 is generally a mild disease in children, with a low morbidity and mortality rate. If parents do have concerns about their child’s health, we would urge them to seek the appropriate medical advice, either contacting NHS 111, their GP- or in emergencies dialling 999.”

Paediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology consultant Liz Whittaker said on Twitter the matter had been referred to NHS England and Public Health England."

Coronavirus is understood to be less serious in children. The exact number of cases of the ‘coronavirus-linked’ syndrome is not known, although it is believed to be small.

Analysis by LBC's political editor Theo Usherwood

Matt Hancock is a minister under intense pressure.

At the start of his LBC phone-in with Nick Ferrari, you wouldn’t have known it.

By the end, you certainly did.

The first caller, Intisar Chowdary. The 18-year-old wanted an apology from the Government.

His father Abdul, a consultant urologist at Homerton hospital in east London, died after contracting Covid-19.

He had warned Boris Johnson in a letter about the lack of protective equipment for frontline NHS staff. His son now wanted to know whether Mr Hancock would admit mistakes had been made and say sorry.

“I think it’s very important that we are constantly learning how to do things better,” Mr Hancock replied.

The French President Emmanuel Macron had apologised to his country. But that wasn’t something Mr Hancock was prepared to do.

Carol, from Cheltenham, had another go. She told the Health Secretary her town on the edge of the Cotswolds, had been turned into a “hotspot” after the Government had allowed the horse-racing to go ahead last month.

She received another anodyne response. “I am have absolutely no doubt that the review called for will happen and quite rightly because we need to learn in case there are future pandemics like this,” Mr Hancock told Carol.

The calculation must be that by the time that review publishes its findings, any criticism of the Health Secretary will be immaterial as he would have moved on from his current job.

But LBC phone-ins have the habit of eventually exposing the cracks in a politician’s demeanour and arguments.

That moment came with Nick Ferrari’s simple offer of a bet.

“Are you prepared to have a £100 wager, and I will never be happier to write a cheque for £100, when you deliver that 100,000 tests on May 1, and the money goes to NHS charities? Are you up for the bet, minister?” said Ferrari.

“I have got enough riding on this already, Nick,” came Mr Hancock’s reply.

Indeed, critics of the Health Secretary would argue his job is on the line if the Government badly misses the target at the end of the week.