As the number of UK coronavirus cases hit , government sources warned it will take “months rather than weeks” for the outbreak’s full impact to be felt here.
Four more people – all of whom had traveled to the disease hotspot of Italy – have been diagnosed in England and the toll is expected to soar.
Boris Johnson chaired his first emergency COBRA meeting and said a “very significant” spread of the infection is “clearly on the cards”.
He said: “It’s more likely than not that we will face a challenge in the weeks, months ahead.”
The Prime Minister insisted we are well prepared for a mass epidemic and said a “battle plan” will be unveiled on Tuesday.
But confirming we face a tense and uncertain wait to see the full extent of the crisis, a Whitehall source said: “You are talking about months rather than weeks before we reach the peak of this.”
A man wearing a face mask in London (Image: PA)
Ministers from every department met on Monday to agree the emergency plan. It will include primary legislation that will have to be passed by MPs and peers.
The first elements are expected to appear next week but it might not be fully in place until the end of the month.
Health chiefs will aim to slow the spread of Covid – , lower its peak impact and push it away from the winter, when the NHS is under the greatest pressure .
Decisions to close schools, cancel major events and even shut down cities would only be taken on scientific advice.
Retired doctors and nurses could be asked to return to the NHS.
figures had an advance briefing on the action plan. And the leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland dialled into the Cobra session.
Mr Johnson was slammed as a “part-time” PM as the infection rate climbed over the weekend. After the meeting, he said the spread was “likely” to become “more significant” in coming days.
He said: “We have also agreed a plan so that if and when it starts to spread, as I’m afraid it looks likely it will, we are in a position to take the steps necessary to contain the spread as far as we can, and to protect the most vulnerable. ”
All four of yesterday’s new cases had been to Italy, which has been hit by Europe’s biggest outbreak. Two members of the same South Devon family, including a secondary school pupil.
And the Maidstone Studios in Kent, where Take Me Out is filmed, shut after a health worker at a nearby unit tested positive.
Health chiefs confirmed the case was a staff member for the North East London Foundation Trust, which has an office in Maidstone.
Stephanie Dawe, chief nurse, said: “They were not working in a building or role which meant contact with patients.”
A clinician at Mount Vernon Cancer Center in Northwood, Middlesex, who had tested positive and been included in the UK tally has now tested negative, East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust said.
Elsewhere, the death toll in Italy hit 66 yesterday, up from on Sunday , and the total cases stood at 2, , up from 1, 1046.
Germany confirmed . (new cases for a total of , up from
France has cases, up from 191 a day earlier, with three so far dying from the disease.
And Latvia, Senegal and Saudi Arabia confirmed their first cases yesterday.
Iranian authorities uncovered a stash of hoarded medical supplies including millions of gloves as deaths from coronavirus there hit (with 1,
) Richard Ratcliffe, husband of jailed British-Iranian Nazanin, said she has “all the symptoms” of the infection in her Tehran prison but is yet to be tested.
British guests at a quarantined hotel in Tenerife were being flown back yesterday after testing negative.
While Health Secretary Matt Hancock says planning is in hand for any mass outbreak here, concerns remain that the NHS could buckle amid the crisis.
A leaked official document last week suggested up to , (people across the UK could die if up to 94% of the population is infected.
And a survey found more than (% of 1, 728 medics polled question the Government’s assurances on the NHS’s preparedness to deal with a surge in cases.
They fear services are already too badly over-stretched – and in particular that they have too few intensive care beds.
The Treasury was last night working on measures to help in a major outbreak, including extra support for the NHS and small firms.
And MPs demanded an emergency law last night to stop coronavirus leaving zero-hour workers penniless.
Labor warned laws on sick pay will force many in the gig economy to choose between self-isolating and buying food.
Statutory Sick Pay, worth £ 34 per week, is available to them but only covers those on more than £ 130 a week – after they have been ill for four days.
And those off seven days need a GP’s note, despite warnings not to visit a GP if people are self-isolating.
Labor leadership candidate Lisa Nandy said: “The threat is concerned enough without worrying it will leave you without money for rent and food.”
The PM’s spokesman said “further action” will be taken “if needed” to help low-wage workers.
claimants have been urged to contact their JobCentre if infected to avoid being sanctioned.
Meanwhile, China’s ambassador to the UK has praised his country “people’s war” against coronavirus.
Speaking at an event in Central London, Liu Xiaoming said China made “huge sacrifices to slow the transmission” of Covid – .
It has had . , 19 cases since the outbreak began in Wuhan. The disease has now spread to (countries.)
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