Drastic measures such as widespread school closures and the suspension of football matches, concerts and festivals for more than two months will be considered in the event of a coronavirus pandemic, England’s chief medical officer has warned.
Professor Chris Whitty said it was “just a matter of time” before the virus spreads between people in the UK, adding it was inevitable the country would be affected if the outbreak becomes a global pandemic.
Speaking at the Nuffield Trust health summit on Thursday, he said: “If this becomes a global epidemic, then the UK will get it. And if it does not become a global epidemic the UK is capable of containing and getting rid of individual cases leading to onward transmission.
“I expect there will be some form of onward transmission in the UK – that’s just a matter of time, in my view.”
He said the government’s strategy was to contain individual cases, delay the impact of any major outbreak into the spring, research the disease, and put in place “mitigation” measures to try and limit the impact on society and the NHS. That means activity such as surgeries could be “backloaded” until after the outbreak.
Measures to stop the virus spreading would include “reducing mass gatherings” such as football games and “school closures”, Professor Whitty added.
He said: “Now to be clear, we’re not saying we will do them, but we have to look at all of them and say, how likely are they to work? What’s our evidence base? What’s the social cost of this? Because one of the things, frankly, with this virus much more so than flu, is we’re going to have to do this for quite a long period of time, probably more than two months. And the implications of that are non-trivial.”
Professor Whitty suggested the implementation of drastic measures would need to involve a debate about what the public would be willing to tolerate.
He emphasised the most useful actions individuals could take were to ensure they covered their mouth when coughing and washed their hands.
More than a dozen schools have closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak in the UK, where 15 cases of the disease have been confirmed.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed the government’s response is being based on the 2011 NHS pandemic plan, which includes the cancellation of operations to free up beds for patients needing treatment.
Intensive care doctors have told The Independent services were already overstretched and could “crumble” in the event of a serious outbreak.
In such a worst-case scenario, hospitals would be forced to activate a “three wise men” protocol where three senior clinicians would be forced to ration care.
Mr Hancock told The Independent infectious disease intensive care units had “good capacity at the moment to deal with the current level of cases.”
He said capacity had been expanded in recent weeks, adding: “If we do get to very large numbers then we do have a plan in order to tackle that.”
Asked about plans to close football games and schools, the health secretary added: “We want to minimise the social and economic disruption subject to keeping people safe.”
Earlier on Thursday, prime minister Boris Johnson said: “It is absolutely vital that people feel reassured. The NHS is a fantastic service. We have made every possible preparation for any eventuality.
“If you are concerned about travelling abroad to an area that is affected, the key thing is to look at the Foreign Office website for advice.”