Pressure builds on UK to step up coronavirus measures | World news

Pressure was building on Tuesday for a toughening up of the UK’s strategy to combat the coronavirus as British airlines axed flights to and from Italy.

As Ryanair followed British Airways and other airlines in reducing the number of planes travelling to and from the European centre of the outbreak, it emerged that travellers coming to the UK from Italy who were not easily able to self-isolate were being asked if they wanted to self-quarantine in a large hotel near Heathrow airport.

“There are facilities which are available to people who need to self-isolate,” Boris Johnson’s spokesman told journalists. “We have reserved a facility … and people have been staying there.” The venue is understood to be the Holiday Inn hotel, which has been used for some Chinese and South Korean passengers in recent weeks.

But return travellers appear to be free to travel home via public transport if they wish, even though they are supposed to be self-isolating for 14 days even if they do not have symptoms.

It is not known whether they are being offered masks to prevent fellow passengers from possible transmission. It is also unclear what the procedures are for those returning from other airports.

The news emerged as European states set out increasingly strict new measures to stem the spread of the virus. Austria announced a ban on Italians entering the country unless they carry a medical certificate, while Spain has said it is preparing for closures to schools from tomorrow.

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 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 it is used correctly.

Justin McCurry

Amid a fast-moving political response to the crisis, MPs were told that the government could suspend various elements of bureaucracy for GPs to allow them to focus more immediately on treating patients.

The health secretary, Matt Hancock, also agreed to meet Labour to discuss worries over the availability of protective equipment for social care staff, and to look into whether NHS helplines have been refusing people coronavirus tests unless they have been in contact with a sufferer.

In other developments on Tuesday:

The Foreign Office has confirmed it is in contact with Britons in Vietnam after reports of nine new cases confirmed among travellers on board the same flight from London to Hanoi on 2 March, including seven British citizens. It also said US authorities are planning a flight on Tuesday to repatriate British nationals on the Grand Princess cruise ship at the Port of Oakland, California.

The Queen did not shake hands at a Buckingham Palace reception – unlike last week, when she greeted people and shook hands while wearing gloves.

Updated guidance for pregnancy advised expectant mothers with suspected or confirmed coronavirus to attend an obstetric unit for birth.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the hours in which deliveries can be made to supermarkets and other food retailers will be extended to help the industry respond.

Ryanair announced it has cancelled all international flights to and from Italy until 9 April, despite passengers of British Airways complaining of being stranded there after it cancelled all flights in and out of the country.

The UK’s government’s strategy of holding off on cancelling major outdoor events such as football matches or closing schools was meanwhile defended by the deputy chief medical officer, who said experts were assessing new cases on an hourly basis to achieve a “balanced response”.

Speaking as tens of thousands made their way to the start of the Cheltenham Festival, Dr Jenny Harries said that cancelling major events were not necessarily supported by science, adding: “The virus will not survive very long outside.”

Nevertheless, new measures including those aimed at protecting the elderly and vulnerable were expected to be put into action soon, possibly after a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergencies committee on Wednesday.

The prime minister, Boris Johnson, discussed the coronavirus situation with England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, on Tuesday morning while experts from the state’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) also convened to analyse the latest figures on spread. Figures on Monday recorded that there had been 319 confirmed cases and six deaths.

Among those indicating that they expected a change of tactics soon was Dr Peter Drobac of Oxford University, an expert in infectious diseases who told the BBC that he believed it was time to seriously consider some of the social distancing adopted by other countries, including closing schools.

“The evidence we have suggests that social distancing works best before the surge in cases rather than after,” said Dr Drobac, who said that with hindsight it appeared that Italy had waited too long before implementing the measures.

Britain’s possible next steps were discussed this morning at a meeting of the government’s top scientific advisors — chaired by the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance.

In a round of interviews before the meeting, Dr Harries said that “many thousands of people” would contract coronavirus as the disease continued to spread in the UK.

“We currently have relatively few cases here, which is why we are still in the containment phase,” she told Sky News.

Asked when the rapid increase of infections might end, she said: “Within 10 to 14 days we will be likely to advise people with symptoms to self-isolate and we are expecting that start of the peak to come within that period.”

Answering health questions in the Commons, Hancock confirmed to MPs that changes to statutory sick pay rules would mean it would cover all workers, to make sure they are able to take time off if they have coronavirus.

He said: “I can confirm that we will ensure that whatever the status of people who work, right across the economy – whether they are self-employed; whether they are employed but work fewer than the number of hours a week – everybody can be assured they will get the support, so they are not penalised for doing the right thing.”

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