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A major coronavirus epidemic is expected in the UK. A worst case scenario could see 80% of the population infected if it was left unchecked.

So, what steps are being taken and is the NHS well prepared?

Could schools close and public gatherings be banned?

The government has a range of powers to protect people from infection:

  • School closures and – once a new law is passed – allowing bigger class sizes if there are teacher shortages
  • Restrictions on the use of public transport
  • Stopping big gatherings
  • Troops supporting the emergency services
  • Police focusing on the most serious crimes and maintaining public order
  • New legal powers to make people stay in quarantine

What steps have been taken so far?

The stages in the government’s action plan are contain, delay and mitigate, with research running alongside. The focus so far has been on contain and delay.

The contain stage has involved tracing people who had contact with those diagnosed with coronavirus and getting them to self-isolate in case symptoms develop.

From the end of March health experts are likely to start advising people with mild cold and flu-like symptoms to assume they may have coronavirus and self-isolate..

At the moment, winter bugs are still circulating, so any illness is more likely to be those.

What could the next steps be?

There is likely to be specific advice aimed at the elderly and those with existing health conditions, who are most at risk of becoming severely ill.

Others may be asked to work from home, stagger their commute, or cut back on unnecessary socialising.

The government’s emergency Cobra committee – made up of ministers, civil servants and officials – is co-ordinating the response.

Steps such as closing schools would have major social and economic consequences. Because of this, ministers have stressed the need not to over-react.

There are also doubts about whether such measures have much impact. For example, if you stop people attending football matches they may just meet in pubs, where the risk of infection would be similar.

There is also a question of sustaining so-called social distancing steps – officials say it is about choosing the right options at the right time.

The most drastic measures therefore look likely to be reserved for just before the peak, which could be two months away.

Is the NHS ready for coronavirus?

Up to a fifth of the UK workforce could be off sick during the peak weeks of a major outbreak, the government says.

It believes there could be an increase in deaths, especially among elderly people and those with pre-existing conditions such as heart or lung problems and diabetes.

The NHS has detailed plans to cope with outbreaks of disease and surges in demand.

There are 30 hospitals on stand-by to take patients, but the rest of the NHS has been put on an emergency footing.

Hospitals have been asked to draw up plans to segregate coronavirus patients and supply staff with protective masks and suits.

All patients in hospital who have flu-like symptoms are now being tested. If someone tests positive, a decision will be made on whether to move the patient to one of the designated sites based on what is in the best interests of that individual.

Patients who only have mild symptoms are being asked to self-isolate at home. Community teams have been asked to keep an eye on them.

People who think they may be affected by coronavirus need to call the NHS 111 phone service for further advice. They should not go to their GP, or A&E.

In Scotland, check NHS inform, then ring your GP in office hours, or 111 out-of-hours. In Wales call NHS 111, and in Northern Ireland, call your GP.

How will the NHS treat seriously ill patients?

Currently there is no treatment or cure, so hospitals are trying to relieve the symptoms.

Specialist equipment called ECMO – which helps with breathing – is available at five units across the UK for the most severely ill patients if their lungs fail.

In the worst-case scenario of widespread transmission, hospitals could start cancelling routine treatments to prioritise coronavirus patients.

It is estimated one in 20 cases may become critically ill, which could overwhelm the NHS.

There are just over 4,000 intensive care beds, which can be increased. By how much is not clear.

Theatres and recovery rooms can be converted into temporary intensive care areas, some believe capacity can be increased two or even three-fold, others warn only a few thousand more can be opened.

Doctors warn some difficult decisions may need to be made about which patients get treatment.

What is the UK hoping to achieve?

The ultimate goal is to delay the peak until the summer months, when there will be less pressure on the NHS.

There may also be progress developing a treatment. Several antiviral therapies, including those used to treat malaria and HIV, are being tested.

Pushing cases towards the summer could also reduce the rate of transmission. People will be outdoors more, making it more difficult for the virus to be passed on.

The expectation is that the proportion of people infected could be down at around 20%, perhaps even less, if the measures work.

But there is a tricky balance to get right. Suppress it too much and you could have a second wave as soon as you relax the measures that have been taken to curb the spread.

If that came next winter, it could cause real problems.

But manage it right and – in theory – at some point a vaccine will be developed, treatments will be available and we will be in a much better position to deal with the virus than we are in 2020.


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