The army could be called in to help with efforts to contain the novel coronavirus if the outbreak worsens, the government said today as it set out a detailed plan to slow the spread of the virus and mitigate its effects.
The action plan, unveiled today, came as it emerged the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, was being forced to rewrite next week's Budget to take account of the likely economic effect of the Covid-19 outbreak. Sunak is expected to announce extra cash for the NHS and other public services to help them cope with the impact of a major rise in confirmed cases
A detailed, 28-page plan published today promised to "ensure that the agencies responsible for tackling the outbreak are properly resourced to do so, that they have the people, equipment and medicines they need, and that any necessary changes to legislation are taken forward as quickly as possible".
The plan said that if the Covid-19 virus reaches pandemic levels in the UK, health services will draw on stockpiled medicines and emergency services will trigger their business continuity plans – meaning fire and police services may respond only to more serious calls if large numbers of their staff fall ill.
The plan expanded on measures announced as part of the UK’s “battle plan” to fight coronavirus following a COBRA meeting yesterday. The government said then that retired doctors could be called upon to treat patients in the event of NHS staff shortages, people could be told to work from home and major sporting events could be cancelled as part of the plan.
Many of the measures outlined in the plan – including the cancellation of public events – will only be put in place if and when the outbreak becomes a pandemic. Preparations have already been put in place so these measures can be triggered at each stage. For example, the action plan said the Ministry of Defence had plans in place to "ensure the delivery of its key operations in the UK and overseas", as well as arrangements to provide extra support to civil authorities "if requested".
These measures will come into play as the last of four phases set out in today’s action plan: contain, delay, research and mitigate.
Setting out details in a press conference in Downing Street today, prime minister Boris Johnson said the government was "committed to doing everything possible based on the advice of our world leading scientific experts to prepare for all eventualities."
"I fully understand public concern about the global spread of this virus. And it is highly likely that we will see a growing number of UK cases," Johnson said at a press conference, flanked by England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty and government's chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.
But he added: "At this stage... I want to stress that for the vast majority of the people of this country, we should be going about our business as usual."
The action plan said efforts to tackle the virus would escalate on the advice of the UK's chief medical officers, "taking into account the degree of sustained transmission and evident failure of measures in other countries to reduce spread".
"In the event of the outbreak worsening, or a severe prolonged pandemic, the response will escalate, and the focus will move from contain to delay, through to mitigate. During this phase the pressures on services and wider society may start to become significant and clearly noticeable," the plan said.
In the current “contain” phase, the government is attempting to identify anyone at risk of having contracted the virus, is providing testing treatment and quarantine facilities for those who contract it, and is encouraging those who may have contracted it to isolate themselves.
Regulations have been put in place to give medical professionals powers to detain and quarantine patients if needed while the Foreign Office has repatriated British nationals stranded overseas in at-risk areas, and government bodies including the Department for Education and Public Health England have published advice.
If more cases are found, steps will be taken to delay the spread of the disease. People across the UK could be told to work from home if they can, schools may be closed, and the government will ramp up its public awareness campaigns about hygiene.
This will buy time to decrease the risk of a major outbreak overlapping with seasonal flu, and buying time to test drugs and develop vaccines or new treatments, the action plan said.
The government is also working with research funding bodies to support research into testing and vaccines. It has announced £20m for projects for projects to develop vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics, or to better understand the disease, under a research funding call administered by the Department for Health and Social Care and UK Research and Innovation. It has also committed £20m to a global partnership, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, to develop vaccines and is “actively considering further investment”, the document said.
Further details of funding for the emergency measures is expected Sunak's firs Budget next week. The chancellor is also expected to announce measures to support self-employed people and those working on zero-hours contracts, whose incomes could be hit by the measures to contain the virus.
Sunak was among a number of cabinet ministers who attended the emergency COBRA meeting yesterday at which the action plan for was agreed.
He said the whole of government was working together to tackle Covid-19. "We understand that people across the country are worried, but I assure you that we are taking firm action to support your families, your businesses and the public services on which you rely," he said.
"We are well prepared for this global threat and, as the wider economic picture becomes clearer, we stand ready to announce further support where needed."