Coronavirus: School closures and travel curbs in UK ‘battle plan’

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The government is to outline a “battle plan” to contain the spread of coronavirus involving possible school closures, event cancellations and bringing NHS staff out of retirement.

A possible “social distancing” strategy could see unnecessary travel curbed.

Legislation will be introduced to ensure ministers have the powers to prepare for a widespread outbreak.

The chancellor says this month’s budget will see help for the health services and economy in the face of the threat.

It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday warned there could be “significant expansion” in UK cases as the number on Monday rose to 39.

Should the virus spread further, the government’s aim is to delay the peak of the outbreak until later in the year when the weather is warmer.

Ministers will re-iterate that existing powers allow them to limit the use of public transport and ban mass gatherings. But they are expected to stress that, given the social and economic impact of such a move, such measures are more likely to be used to curb local outbreaks than imposed nationwide.

A bill that would allow the government to use extra powers to help control the virus is expected to go through Parliament by the end of the month.

Rules around staff-to-pupil ratios in education and childcare settings could be relaxed in case of staff sickness caused by the spread of the virus.

Under the plans, to be announced at Downing Street, retired doctors and nurses could be asked to return to the NHS, with emergency indemnity coverage could be provided for healthcare workers to provide care or diagnostic services.

Thirty hospitals across the UK could set up designated wards to treat coronavirus patients, with routine treatments cancelled in the worst-case scenario of widespread transmission in the UK.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has ordered Treasury officials to work up plans to support the public health response, businesses and the economy in his Budget on 11 March.

He said: “We are well prepared for this global threat and, as the wider economic picture becomes clearer, we stand ready to announce further support where needed.”

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The prime minister, who will launch the plan alongside England’s chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, said the government was making “every possible preparation”.

The measures would see:

  • Government departments designating a minister to oversee the response to the global threat of the virus – such as for schools or businesses
  • The setting up a “war room” in the Cabinet Office – bringing together communications experts and scientists from across government and the NHS to roll out a public information campaign
  • Coronavirus being a standing item on the weekly cabinet agenda
  • People encouraged to work from home

A public information campaign will be launched later this week outlining how the public can help to limit the spread of the virus, including by washing hands regularly with soap and water.

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There were four new UK cases announced on Monday, all of whom had travelled to Italy – which has seen the largest outbreak in Europe.

They are from Hertfordshire, Devon and Kent and tracing their contacts has started, Prof Whitty said.

The latest cases came as the EU raised the coronavirus risk level in member states to “moderate to high”.

The government’s plan to tackle the virus, agreed by all four parts of the UK, was finalised at an emergency Cobra meeting on Monday.

Speaking to the BBC after the meeting, the prime minister said plans would include a “range of calibrated responses to the spread of coronavirus”.

Referring to possible measures to close schools and cancel major public events, Mr Johnson said this would be “when and how and with what logic to deploy them”.

As of 09:00 GMT on Monday, the Department of Health said a total of 13,525 people had been tested in the UK, of which 13,485 were negative.

Globally, about 86,000 people have been infected, with cases in more than 50 countries. More than 3,000 people have died – the vast majority in China’s Hubei province, where the outbreak originated in December.

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