You cannot have missed the media coverage about coronavirus (Covid-19) and its potential impact. As Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, I have of course been heavily involved in the response in Scotland and the UK to the outbreak and detailed planning for the weeks and months ahead.
What do we know for sure? We know that the situation is changing rapidly, that our knowledge about this virus is constantly improving, that there is no vaccine and no treatment – though these are being developed – and that we now have an action plan, setting out a collective approach to the ongoing outbreak of coronavirus.
We are currently containing the virus in the UK. Containment aims to reduce the number of people who catch the virus and can be achieved by early detection of those infected, rapid diagnosis and appropriate clinical treatment and isolation of those infected from others.
What can I do?
The public’s help in responding to the coronavirus situation is crucial – advice about handwashing might seem pretty basic, but none of us should underestimate how important this is.
Clean your hands frequently, especially after coughing, sneezing and using tissues, and don’t touch your mouth, eyes and or nose, unless you have recently cleaned your hands.
Soap and water is a very effective and it should take 20 seconds at least to wash properly.
Advice about using tissues to cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing is also important – of course this should be normal practice and not confined to the current outbreak.
What were those huge numbers I heard this week – isn’t that very alarming? Are you trying to scare us?
The evidence we have from scientific experts is that we might expect up to 80 per cent of the population to have coronavirus at some point.
A large proportion of people will have very minimal symptoms or equivalent to a cold and will recover completely. There will be a small percentage of that figure, perhaps four per cent, who will require treatment in hospital.
This won’t be all at one time of course – it will be over several months and we are currently taking the best advice available about measures we could take if necessary to reduce the peak and pressure on the NHS.
These are aimed at reducing contacts with other people to delay the transmission of the virus. Some have already been started in other countries – reducing or stopping mass gatherings such as sports events, advising people to work from home, closing schools and universities.
These may have some effect but will also have many downsides and the longer we can contain this virus the more information we will have about what works and what causes disruption but has no effect on slowing the spread.
It is also thought that the further we are from winter will make a difference – fewer admissions to the NHS, fewer other viruses around making us cough and sneeze and most respiratory viruses survive less well in the summer months.
We have national, regional, and local plans in place to increase capacity in the NHS. We may have to work differently, for example by having virtual and telephone consultations, staff taking on different roles, coming back from retirement, staff trained up and working in a wider range of areas – with flexibility and pragmatism if the system is under strain. We managed much of this during bad weather in the recent past and we will do so again, only more so, if needed.
Please keep up to date with the latest advice on the NHS Inform website particularly if you have returned from travel abroad. You can help – there is something you can do – we can all play a part in protecting ourselves and others.