The cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, has told civil servants to act as an example to the rest of the country, continuing to work as normal as reports of the novel coronavirus outbreak worsen.
In a message to officials yesterday afternoon, Sedwill said staff should take the “simple, sensible” precautions advised by the government to prevent the spread of Covid-19, such as frequent hand washing.
“Should the country face a serious outbreak, the whole public service will be engaged in dealing with the impact. We have extensive contingency plans in place to fulfil those responsibilities, while handling absences from work, disruption to other services, and so on. Your departmental leadership will communicate these to you as necessary,” he said.
But Sedwill, who is also head of the civil service, said officials did not need to take any more drastic action at this stage.
“As well as our professional responsibilities, as public servants, we should set an example of best practice to our fellow citizens,” he said.
“As you will have seen from the news, we should continue to work as normal, while following official guidance and taking a measured, practical approach to limit the spread of the virus and minimise the risk of infection.”
Sedwill pointed to the action plan published by Downing Street yesterday, which set out actions the government could take to tackle the spread of the virus.
Measures to contain Covid-19, including quarantining those who are ill and tracking those who might be at risk, are already in place as part of the first stage of the plan.
The government passed emergency legislation this afternoon to give people statutory sick pay from their first day of work, rather than the fourth as it usually stands, to make it easier for people to follow official advice to self-isolate if they are at risk of having contracted the virus. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, said people doing so should not be "penalised for doing the right thing".
In the next phase of its action plan, the government will take more drastic measures to delay the spread of the virus. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, told MPs on the Health and Social Care Select Committee today that the government has moved from mainly contain to "mainly delay phase".
At this stage, people could be instructed to work from home and schools could be closed – but Sedwill said civil servants should not act on this yet.
He said: “I will update you as the situation, and our response to the virus, develops. In the meantime, follow the advice, take all sensible precautions, and continue to provide the public services on which our country and citizens depend.”
Sedwill acknowledged that it is “becoming more likely that we will see widespread transmission in this country”.
But he added: “guided by the UK’s chief medical adviser, we are well prepared as a country to deal with this outbreak”.
His message came after Whitty said it was “likely” the virus would become an epidemic. As of yesterday afternoon, 85 cases of the virus have now been confirmed in the UK.