Local elections could be delayed by coronavirus outbreak | World news

Government lawyers are assessing the possibility of delaying the local authority, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections in May if the coronavirus outbreak continues to escalate, the Guardian can disclose.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said on Sunday the government was considering all options, from closing schools to isolating entire cities if Covid-19 became a pandemic. He said ministers would publish a plan this week to explain how they may tackle such an event.

An email sent to board members of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners on Saturday by its chief executive, Susannah Hancock, reveals that these measures would also include potentially delaying the forthcoming elections.

She said that the Home Office, in discussions with the Cabinet Office, had sought legal advice on postponing the elections.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

Justin McCurry

“We have had a number of inquiries today regarding the PCC elections, coronavirus and whether the May PCC and local elections will take place,” the email reads.

“I have spoken with the Home Office and they are currently liaising with Cabinet Office to understand their latest thinking and planning on this.” The Home Office “are also engaging lawyers at their end to understand how things could proceed and what if any primary legislation might be needed etc”.

She added that the Home Office would keep the APCC updated and that police and crime commissioners would be briefed soon.

“We can get further information out to PCCs once we have more info next week, but I wanted to let you know the latest and that work is in hand.”

The local elections are due to be held on Thursday 7 May. About 118 English councils will be contested, along with eight directly elected mayors in England and 40 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales.

What is Covid-19 – the illness that started in Wuhan?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city.

Have there been other coronaviruses?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

What are the symptoms caused by the new coronavirus?

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

UK Chief Medical Officers are advising anyone who has travelled to the UK from mainland China, Thailand, Japan, Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia or Macau in the last 14 days and who is experiencing a cough or fever or shortness of breath to stay indoors and call NHS 111, even if symptoms are mild.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China’s national health commission has confirmed human-to-human transmission, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere.

How many people have been affected?

As of 2 March, the outbreak has affected an estimated 87,000 people globally. In mainland China, of the 80,026 confirmed cases, 44,462 (56%) have recovered and 2,912 (or 3.6%) have died.

The coronavirus has spread to at least other 30 other countries. The most badly affected include Japan, with 850 cases, including 691 from a cruise ship docked in Yokohama, and four deaths. Italy has recorded at least 1,100 cases and 29 deaths, while South Korea has recorded more than 4,212 cases and 22 deaths. There have also been deaths in Hong Kong, Taiwan, France, the US and the Philippines.

There have been 36 recorded cases and no fatalities to date in the UK.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2% at the centre of the outbreak, Hubei province, and less than that elsewhere. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Another key unknown is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important. One sensible step is to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.

Is the outbreak a pandemic?

A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed outside China, but by no means in all 195 countries on the WHO’s list. It is also not spreading within those countries at the moment, except in a very few cases. By far the majority of cases are travellers who picked up the virus in China.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people, and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact. Generally, the coronavirus appears to be hitting older people hardest, with few cases in children.

Sarah BoseleyHannah Devlin and Martin Belam

In 2001, the local elections were delayed because of the foot and mouth epidemic, the first delay to local elections since the second world war, as more than 6 million sheep, cattle and pigs were slaughtered to contain the outbreak.

A government spokesperson said the UK was “extremely well prepared for these types of outbreaks” but would not comment directly on the plans to assess the possibility of delaying the elections.

“We are continuing to work closely across government, with the World Health Organization and the international community as the outbreak develops to ensure we are ready for all eventualities,” they said.

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: “The commission and the electoral community are working hard to ensure that the scheduled May elections can go ahead as planned, as well as monitoring the developing issue of the coronavirus and its potential impact.

“Any changes to the date of May’s polls would be a matter for the UK government and parliament. In the event of any changes to the date, we would work with the electoral community to minimise any potential disruption.”

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