Yesterday I asked the Health Secretary for an update on the Government’s coronavirus action plan.
The plan has been jointly agreed by the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. The plan is driven by the science and guided by the expert recommendations of the four UK chief medical officers and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. It sets out what we know so far about the virus and the disease that it causes, what long-term planning we have undertaken to prepare for a pandemic, what actions we have taken so far in response to the current outbreak, and, crucially, the role that the public can play in supporting our response, both now and in the future.
The UK is well prepared for infectious disease outbreaks of this kind. The international data continue to indicate that for most people, this disease is mild and the vast majority recover fully. We have responded to a wide range of disease outbreaks in the recent past, and the NHS has been preparing for a pandemic virus for well over a decade. We have world-class expertise to make sense of the emerging data, we have a strong base on which to build, and, while covid-19 is a new virus, we have adapted our response to take account of that fact.
The plan sets out a phased response to the outbreak. Phase 1 is to contain, and it is the phase that we are currently in. Contain is about detecting the early cases, following up close contacts, and preventing the disease from taking hold in this country for as long as is reasonably possible. That approach also buys time for the NHS to ramp up its preparations. The scientific advice is that if the number of global cases continues to rise, especially in Europe, we may not be able to contain the virus indefinitely.
At that point, we will activate the delay phase of our plan. Delay is about slowing the spread, lowering the peak impact of the disease, and pushing it away from the winter season. We are mindful of scientific advice that reacting too early or overreacting carries its own risks, so, subject to the primary goal of keeping people safe, we will seek to minimise social and economic disruption.
The third part of the plan is research. Research has been ongoing since we first identified covid-19, and I pay tribute to the scientists at Public Health England who were among the first in the world to sequence its genome. Research is not just about the development of a vaccine, which we are actively pursuing but which will be many months away at the earliest. It is also about understanding what actions will lessen the impact of the coronavirus, including what drugs and treatments—existing and new—will help those who are already sick.
The fourth phase is mitigate. We will move to this phase if the virus becomes established in the UK population. At that point it would be impossible to prevent widespread transmission, so the emphasis will be on caring for those who are most seriously ill, and keeping essential services running at a time when large parts of the workforce may be off sick. Our plans include not just the most likely case, but the reasonable worst case.
We will identify and support the most vulnerable. If necessary, we will take some of the actions set out in today’s plan to reduce the impact of absentees and to lessen the impact on our economy and supply chains. We prepare for the worst and work for the best. We commit to ensuring that the agencies responsible for tackling this outbreak are properly resourced and have the people, equipment and medicines that they need, and that any new laws that they need are brought forward as and when required.
This is a national effort. We need everyone to listen to and act on the official medical advice. We need employers to prioritise the welfare of their staff. And the single most important thing that everyone can do to help is to use tissues when they cough or sneeze, and to wash their hands more often. That is in their interest, their families’ interest and the national interest.