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Coronavirus: as many as 10,000 in Britain may already have it, says PM | World news


Up to 10,000 people may already have coronavirus in Britain and many families should expect to lose loved ones before their time, Boris Johnson warned on Thursday as he set out measures less stringent than those taken by other countries.

Medical, scientific and public health experts criticised the steps outlined to tackle what the prime minister described as the “worst public health crisis for a generation”, including ending school trips abroad, stopping older and vulnerable people taking cruises and the use of self-isolation for a temperature and cough lasting four hours.

Schools are to remain open and large gatherings such as sports events and concerts will go ahead, amid concerns that moving too soon with stricter measures could bring public fatigue, though the prime minister said both measures remained under consideration.

The moves put England and Wales at odds with neighbouring countries. Scotland moved to ban gatherings of more than 500 people from next week, while the Republic of Ireland and France became the latest countries to announce the closure of all schools.

Johnson’s moves came as the stock market in London suffered its blackest day since 1987, with panic selling – triggered by Donald Trump’s surprise ban on travel between the US and the Schengen zone – surpassing the worst seen in the 2008-09 financial crisis.

What is Covid-19 – the illness that started in Wuhan?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals.

What are the symptoms this coronavirus causes?

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

In the UK, the medical advice is that if you have recently travelled from areas affected by coronavirus, you should:

  • stay indoors and avoid contact with other people as you would with the flu
  • call NHS 111 to inform them of your recent travel to the area

More NHS advice on what to do if you think you have been exposed to the virus can be found here, and the full travel advice to UK nationals is available here.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission in January, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere.

How many people have been affected?

As of 9 March, more than 110,000 people have been infected in more than 80 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

There have over 3,800 deaths globally. Just over 3,000 of those deaths have occurred in mainland China. 62,000 people have recovered from the coronavirus.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. Seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Another key unknown is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important. One sensible step is to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.

Have there been other coronaviruses?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

Sarah BoseleyHannah Devlin and Martin Belam

Fears that the US president had turned the possibility of a global recession into a certainty sent share prices into a tailspin and by the end of a day of turmoil, the FTSE 100 index was down 639 points – a drop of almost 11%.

In other developments, the Electoral Commission urged the government to postpone local and mayoral elections in May, while next week’s planned Brexit talks in London were called off. Universities across the country began to cancel in-person lectures in favour of online teaching.

Thursday’s press conference was told that Britain, where the death toll had risen to 10 and where there are 596 diagnosed cases, is believed to be four weeks behind Italy, which has seen 1,000 deaths and more than 15,000 infections. In the UK, the infection is expected to build to a peak in May or June.

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said that worst-case scenario planning projected that 80% of the country would contract the virus, with a 1% mortality rate. This equates to more than 500,000 deaths.

Speaking at a sombre press conference in Downing Street, the prime minister said measures to tackle “the worst public health crisis for a generation” could “cause severe disruption” to everyday life for months.

“It is going to spread further and I must level with you, I must level with the British public: many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time,” Johnson said, as two more fatalities from Covid-19 brought the death toll in Britain so far to 10.

Dismissing the belief that the virus is comparable to seasonal flu, he added: “Alas that is not right. Due to the lack of immunity, this disease is more dangerous,” with the elderly at particular risk. Entire families could be told to self-isolate if one of them falls ill, and people should start looking after elderly relatives and neighbours, he added.

Ministers and health chiefs are bracing themselves for an imminent sharp rise in infections and deaths. Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, said between 5,000 and 10,000 people in the UK are thought to have the virus now, as it spreads undiagnosed.

From now on, anyone with symptoms of the coronavirus must stay at home, schools should not undertake trips abroad and those aged over 70 with underlying health problems should not go on cruises, he said.

Experts criticised the measures as too limited to have a major effect and inadequate, given the scale of the looming threat to health.

“I can’t see that any of these measures are going to have a big impact … none of that is really going to affect transmission in the UK,” said Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the university of East Anglia.

Prof John Ashton, former regional director of public health for northwest England, said: “This is a kind of ragbag with no particular logic to it … they are issuing some semi-directive things but they are not really doing what we need to do, which is to mobilise and encourage communities, neighbourhoods, families to form their own plans for the next period in which the local situation will influence what happens – whether it’s not going out to eat, or stopping sporting events.”

Coming on the day that Ireland decided to close all schools and colleges until 29 March, Johnson’s decision not to dramatically upgrade the government’s response highlighted again the stark difference between the UK’s approach and that of other European countries, which have instigated tougher action.

The UK is among a dwindling number of European countries – others include Belgium and the Netherlands – not to have introduced at least a partial closure of its schools. The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, announced measures including a ban on gatherings of more than 100 people yesterday, but said closing schools would do more harm than good at this stage.

Flanked by Vallance and Whitty, Johnson defended their tactics.

“The measures that I have discussed today … staying at home if you think you have the symptoms, your whole household staying at home, looking after the elderly – making sure the elderly and vulnerable stay at home – these are the three most powerful defensive lines,” he said.

But Hunter said older people had been “left out on a limb” by ministers not setting our more detailed plans to protect their health.

Martin Hibberd, professor of emerging infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the UK’s response “has clearly not been sufficient”. He and other experts called for much more extensive testing and tracing of the contacts of those diagnosed with Covid-19.

However, there was broad support for schools staying open, given children’s low risk from the virus and the economic and practical impact of parents left unable to work because they were looking after their offspring.

Signs that financial markets were starting to freeze up in response to growing evidence of economic distress caused by the pandemic created echoes on Thursday of the near-collapse of the banking system in 2008 and prompted an emergency cash injection from America’s central bank.

But the action by the New York Fed was not enough to make good the damage caused by Donald Trump, and botched attempts by the European Central Bank to reassure investors proved counter-productive.

The prospect of a sharp fall in business and tourist travel prompted concern over the financial health of airlines and saw an 80% drop in the share price of Finablr, owner of the airport money business Travelex.

But the pain suffered by sectors seen as especially sensitive to travel restrictions and weaker consumer demand was only part of a wider selloff that saw a fall in the share price of every FTSE 100 company.

Since the markets started to take fright at the economic implications of Covid-19 in late February, the FTSE 100 has fallen by more than 2,000 points to 5,237 and seen its value plummet by £543bn.

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