Boris Johnson has called for a “national effort” to defeat Covid-19 – as he warned the country that the crisis will get worse in the weeks ahead.
In a press conference held yesterday, top government officials also indicated that anyone with even mild respiratory illness symptoms – such as a cough or runny nose – will soon be told to stay at home for a week
He also defended the government’s response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus strain amid calls for him to mirror the tougher approach being taken in other countries.
Johnson’s press conference came as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced a taskforce to help coordinate the local response to the outbreak, including tabletop exercises to assess preparedness around the country.
Speaking alongside chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, Johnson confirmed that the response to the disease will soon enter the “delay” phase of the government's plan, which experts hope can put off the worst of the outbreak until the summer months to ease the pressure on the NHS.
On Monday morning the PM chaired a COBRA meeting of senior ministers, who agreed to maintain the current response to the crisis. A further meeting is scheduled for Wednesday.
At a press conference in Downing Street, Johnson said: “This is clearly going to be a big national challenge and it’s going to grow and become an even bigger national challenge.
“But it is also obvious to me that we now have to defeat it, and with a great national effort we will be able to pull together and do just that.”
Other European countries have responded to the outbreak with a series of strict measures, including the cancellation of major sporting events and a nationwide quarantine in Italy.
However, Johnson said it was important that the UK did not follow suit too soon.
He said: “We mustn’t do things that have no or limited medical benefit, nor things which could turn out to be counterproductive.”
Whitty added: “Once we've started these things, we will have to continue them through the peak and that is for a period of time. And there is a risk, if we go too early, people will understandably get fatigued and it'll be difficult to sustain this over time. So getting the timing right is absolutely critical to making this work."
Meanwhile, the chief medical officer also revealed that the response to the crisis will shift in the next ten to 14 days, at which point anyone with a high temperature, runny nose or cough will be urged to stay at home for seven days to halt the spread of Covid-19.
“That is the first step along a path towards trying to contain and pull down the peak,” he said.
Vallance said the government hoped that by sticking to its current plan, the number of people catching the virus could be 50% lower at the peak than they would otherwise, with the mortality rate being reduced by between 20%-30%
The press conference came MHCLG announced it was setting up a taskforce to help coordinate the local response to the virus.
The taskforce will bring together senior experts from local government, public health and adult social care to assess the plans developed by local resilience forums to tackle the outbreak.
There are 38 such forums in England, made up of emergency services, a range of government agencies, health bodies and local authorities.
The taskforce will be led by Andy Battle, the recently-retired assistant chief constable for West Yorkshire and the resilience forum chair for that region, and Dr Ruth Hussey, the former chief medical officer for Wales.
As well as conducting a tabletop exercise in each LRF area to test their plans, the review will also discuss support for vulnerable people, and how to maintain key services.
Announcing the plans, local government secretary Robert Jenrick said: “We all have a part to play in managing the spread of coronavirus and I am working to ensure local partners are fully equipped to play their part, too. Today I established a taskforce to support local resilience forums, helping them fully prepare for a range of scenarios at a local level.
“This includes ensuring that LRFs have robust plans in place for helping local people and dealing with pandemic flu of all types, including coronavirus.
“With extensive experience, the new taskforce will provide LRFs with the capability and expertise to respond quickly and effectively.”
Johnson was speaking as it was confirmed that the death toll for the flu-like illness in the UK had risen to five, with 319 positive diagnoses.
NHS England told the Press Association that a fifth patient had died after testing positive for the illness.
The government has meanwhile lifted time restrictions on supermarket home deliveries in a bid to help retail giants keep up with rising demand from the outbreak.
Following crisis talks with retailers, officials confirmed that overnight bans – put in force to avoid disturbing residents – would be lifted.
Environment secretary George Eustice said: "We have listened to our leading supermarkets and representatives from across the industry, and we are taking action to support their preparations. By allowing night time deliveries to our supermarkets and food retailers we can free them up to move their stocks more quickly from their warehouses to their shelves.
"Our retailers have well-established contingency plans in place and are taking all the necessary steps to ensure consumers have the food and supplies they need. I will continue to work closely with them over the coming days and weeks on this."
Johnson said he was "confident" that supermarkets had "fantastic supply chains" to handle increased demand, but he urged Brits to avoid stockpiling and panic-buying.
"I think it's very, very important that everyone should behave responsibly and think about others," he said.