Coronavirus is likely to be spreading undetected in the UK already, with health officials on the brink of moving into the phase of “delaying” rather than trying to “contain” transmission, the chief medical officer has said.
Chris Whitty, who is helping to lead the government’s response, said it was “likely, not definite, that we will move on to onward transmission and an epidemic here in the UK”.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Whitty said the UK was almost in the second phase of the government’s strategy of trying to contain, delay, research and mitigate the virus.
“When I was here previously, we were firmly in contain stage. Now I think we are on the borderline between containing and delaying. But many of the things you do to contain it also delay it.”
Whitty was pressed on whether coronavirus was spreading freely in the UK, with patients contracting the virus from unidentified sources.
He said: “If someone has imported a case and they are isolated, that isn’t community transmission. Even if someone gets it who we know about having the disease and it happens to be passed on in the UK, that also isn’t. It’s when it’s going from person to person to person and we pick it up. That’s what we mean by community transmission. It is likely that will happen if not now then very soon … I think it is likely to be happening at the moment, not definite.”
Whitty gave his assessment as the government designated coronavirus a notifiable disease, which means some companies will be able to seek insurance compensation for coronavirus cancellations.
The move brings England into line with Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland which have already added coronavirus to their lists of notifiable diseases.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “To mitigate the impact on businesses, we will register Covid-19 as a notifiable disease. This will help companies seek compensation through their insurance policies in the event of any cancellations they may have to make as a result of the spread of the virus.”
Mark Carney, the Bank of England governor, has also suggested that small firms could get cash boosts to help stay afloat.
The government released its coronavirus action plan on Tuesday, showing that sweeping new measures may be necessary if an epidemic occurs.
The Guardian revealed that police investigations into some homicides could be halted and 999 response times extended under contingency plans to help forces cope with a severe coronavirus outbreak.
Schools may be closed, public events cancelled and some doctors called in out of retirement, the government also said.
As the number of confirmed UK cases reached 51, officials said the worst-case scenario was that up to a fifth of the workforce could be off sick during the peak of a potential epidemic.
On Tuesday evening, tests on thousands of patients in hospital intensive care units were ordered by NHS England amid concerns about the possible spread of the virus among people with respiratory problems.
Twelve more people across England tested positive for coronavirus – the second-highest single-day increase in cases to date – with all thought to have contracted it abroad. Eight had recently travelled from Italy, while the others came from Germany, Singapore, Japan and Iran.