UK moves to ‘delay’ phase of coronavirus plan | World news

Schools across the UK will be asked to cancel trips abroad and Scotland has banned gatherings of more than 500 people, as Britain moves to the “delay” phase of the coronavirus crisis, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.

In an announcement pre-empting Boris Johnson’s press conference later on Thursday, Scotland’s first minister said the move to the second phase of emergency planning was made at a Cobra meeting chaired by the prime minister.

She said the types of events affected by the Scottish ban on mass gatherings, which will come into effect on Monday, would include football and rugby matches, where the presence of emergency workers was required, but not church gatherings. “I feel an obligation to remove as many unnecessary burdens on these [emergency] workers as I can,” Sturgeon said.

She said schools would remain open, but the decision was being kept under review. The Foreign Office, however, would be issuing travel advice against taking any school trips abroad, Sturgeon added.

The decision relating to mass gatherings was not based on scientific evidence, she said, which suggests it will not have a significant impact on the spread of the virus, but will help for consistency of messaging and to alleviate pressure on the emergency services being stretched by the pandemic.

Sturgeon said that, from Friday, people with symptoms indicative of coronavirus should stay at home and self-isolate for seven days.

“The decision has been taken that we have now moved from a
contain phase into the delay phase, where the objective is to seek to slow down
the spread of the virus, to reduce the numbers who will be infected at the peak,
the number infected at any one time,” she said.

The government’s plan for tackling the virus, published earlier this month, said that once the second phase of delay had been reached, “action that would be considered could include population distancing strategies (such as school closures, encouraging greater home working, reducing the number of large-scale gatherings) to slow the spread of the disease throughout the population, while ensuring the country’s ability to continue to run as normally as possible.”

It is unclear how many of these measures the government will enact in time.

Ireland moved to close schools and colleges on Thursday morning to try to halt the spread of the virus.

When asked about concerns that other countries were taking a different approach to public health, Johnson’s spokesman said: “We believe that we are taking our decisions based on the best scientific and medical advice that is available.

“[Ireland] will make their decisions based on their scientific advice. We will make ours based on the advice of our own chief medical officer and chief scientific officer.”

On Wednesday, Donald Trump decided to ban citizens from 26 European countries from entering the US for the next 30 days. Britain and Ireland are exempt from the ruling because they are not in the Schengen border-free travel agreement.

No 10 said on Thursday the government had no plans for the UK to follow the US. “It’s not the current position of the UK, based on medical and scientific advice, that we should halt flights,” the spokesman said.

Downing Street has so far judged that the disruption that would be caused by blanket school shutdowns, for example, would outweigh the benefits in terms of slowing the spread of the disease.

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

However, some health experts have questioned whether the government has acted aggressively enough to contain the virus. Richard Horton, the editor of the Lancet, has argued that social distancing measures should have been taken earlier, claiming the government was “playing roulette with the public”.

The rationale for social distancing measures is to try to push the worst part of the outbreak into the summer.

The government’s action plan said: “The benefits of doing so are that if the peak of the outbreak can be delayed until the warmer months, we can reduce significantly the risk of overlapping with seasonal flu and other challenges (societal or medical) that the colder months bring.

“The delay phase also buys time for the testing of drugs and initial development of vaccines and/or improved therapies or tests to help reduce the impact of the disease.”

Contingency planning is under way to enable Brexit talks with the EU to continue next week. This could involve phone or video calls.

The prime minister’s spokesman said there was no change to the timetable and June was still the point at which the UK government would walk away from negotiations if it could not secure a Canada-style trade deal.

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