Britain is preparing to move to the next phase of its response to the coronavirus outbreak – when people will be told self-isolate for even a minor cough or cold.
Currently, the UK is in the “containment phase” of the government’s plan, meaning it is trying to stop COVID-19 being transmitted inside the country.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that was “extremely unlikely to work on its own” and “extensive preparations” were underway to move to the “delay” phase to slow the virus’ spread.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned “we are now very close” to instructing anyone who has “even minor respiratory tract infections or a fever” to self-isolate for a week.
Five people in the UK have died after catching the disease. The latest announced on Monday was a patient in their 70s who passed away in St Helier Hospital in the London borough of Sutton.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock had declared “we won’t give up hope of containing this” in parliament.
But hours later Mr Johnson told Sky News it was “obvious” the outbreak is soon going to get “much more significant”.
“We’re preparing various actions to slow the spread of this disease in order to reduce the strain it places on the NHS,” he said in a Downing Street news conference.
He added “the best thing we can all do is wash our hands for 20 seconds with soap and water”.
And he confirmed the cross-Whitehall emergency committee known as COBRA will meet to discuss the outbreak on Wednesday.
Professor Whitty said the advice that anyone with a mild fever should self-isolate would probably be issued in 10-14 days.
He explained timing was crucial to ensure people don’t get tired too quickly of more restrictive advice.
“What we’re moving now to is a phase when we will ask general members of the public to do different things than they would normally do,” he said.
“Anything you do, you have to be able to sustain.
“Because anything you do, you have to be able to do them for a period of time and there’s a risk if we go too early, people will understandably get fatigued and then it will be difficult to sustain this over time, so getting the timing right is absolutely critical to making this work.”
He said this was the “first step along a path towards trying to reduce firstly the delay the epidemic and then to pull down the peak of this epidemic so that it is smaller than it would have been if we don’t take these interventions”.
Prof Whitty added that currently the number of coronavirus cases compared to those with other illnesses common during winter was “very, very low”.
But that will change “very significantly” as Britain approaches the tail end of winter and coronavirus cases grow “really quite fast”.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said the aim was to “be in control of where you are in the epidemic – not in reaction mode”.
On Monday morning, the latest government figures said the number of confirmed infections in the UK was 319 – a rise of 46 in a single day.
More measures promised by the government include extending the hours supermarkets and other shops can take food deliveries to replenish shelves, after several retailers rationed products.