Coronavirus: Is the UK ready for a major outbreak?

Coronavirus: Is the UK ready for a major outbreak?

A nurse swabs a person in a car to check if they have coronavirus

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A major coronavirus epidemic is expected in the UK.

A worst case scenario could see 80% of people infected if nothing is done.

What is the UK now doing about coronavirus?

Measures to delay the spread of coronavirus are being introduced by the UK government.

From Friday:

  • All people with flu like symptoms – a fever above 37.8 C or a persistent cough – should self-isolate (stay away from other people) for seven days
  • All school trips abroad will be banned
  • Older people and those with pre-existing health conditions should not go on cruises

Further measures will be taken as the number of coronavirus infections moves towards its peak:

  • Older people and those with health conditions will be told to cut social contact and stay at home
  • If someone in your home falls ill, the whole household will be told to isolate itself

The aim is to stop coronavirus spreading and then, if it does, to push the time most cases appear back to summer. This would mean less pressure on health services.

Could schools close and public gatherings be banned?

The government is moving on from trying to contain the disease. Its four-point plan also includes reducing the severity of the outbreak (mitigate) and ongoing research.

In future, people may be asked to work from home, stagger their commute, and think about how they socialise. There is a lower risk of passing on the virus when meeting outside than inside.

The government has other powers it could use to protect people from infection:

  • School closures and – once a new law is passed – allowing bigger class sizes if there are teacher shortages
  • Restrictions on the use of public transport
  • Stopping big gatherings
  • Troops supporting the emergency services
  • Police focusing on the most serious crimes and maintaining public order
  • New legal powers to make people stay in quarantine

Some other countries like Italy have already taken some of these measures, but they tend to have more cases.

How is the UK deciding what to do?

Steps like closing schools would have big consequences, so ministers have stressed the need not to over-react.

It is also difficult to know how effective measures like stopping large groups meeting would be. For example, if you stop people attending football matches they might just meet in pubs, where the risk of infection would be similar.

The most drastic measures therefore look likely to be kept until the moment the most cases are expected.

Is the NHS ready for coronavirus?

Up to one in five UK workers could be off sick during a major outbreak, the government says.

It thinks there could be more deaths, especially among elderly people and those with health conditions like heart or lung problems and diabetes.

There are 30 hospitals on stand-by to take patients, but all of the NHS is on an emergency footing.

Hospitals have plans to keep coronavirus patients separate and supply staff with protective masks and suits.

All hospital patients with flu-like symptoms are being tested.

If someone tests positive, they may be moved to one of the main hospitals, if that’s best for them.

Patients with mild symptoms are being asked to self-isolate at home. Community teams will keep an eye on them.

In England and Wales, people who think they may have coronavirus need to call the NHS 111 phone service for further advice. They should not go to their GP, or A&E.

In Scotland, check NHS inform, then ring your GP in office hours, or 111 out-of-hours. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

How will the NHS treat seriously ill patients?

Currently there is no treatment or cure, so hospitals are trying to relieve the symptoms.

Specialist equipment called ECMO – which helps breathing – is at five units for patients whose lungs fail.

If there is widespread transmission, hospitals could start cancelling routine treatments to prioritise coronavirus patients.

It is estimated one in 20 patients may become critically ill, which could overwhelm the NHS. There are just over 4,000 intensive care beds, which can be increased. By how much is not clear.

Doctors warn some difficult decisions may need to be made about which patients get treatment.

What is the UK hoping to achieve?

Apart from putting less pressure on the NHS, delaying the peak to the summer would allow more time to find a coronavirus treatment.

Drugs including those used to treat malaria and HIV are being tested, while researchers are working hard to develop a vaccine.

The rate of transmission could also be lower in summer as more people will be outdoors.

If that happens, the hope is that about one in five people could be infected – far below the worst case scenario of four out of five.


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