Coronavirus: Up to one in five workers in UK could be off during Covid-19 outbreak

Millions of workers could be off work as the NHS declares a Level Four incident

Up to one in five workers in the UK could be off sick during a coronavirus peak, while the police may switch to only dealing with serious crime, a new government battle plan says.

The 27-page document sets out the UK-wide response to Covid-19, with possible measures including the cancellation of non-urgent operations and retired NHS staff being called “back to duty”.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled the government's strategy to combat Covid-19. Picture: PA

The government’s battle plan was set out before Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the number of people diagnosed with coronavirus in the UK had risen to 51.

Twelve new cases were recorded in the UK as of 9am yesterday, officials said, including two in Bury and another in Bolton.

The other cases were confirmed in London, Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Wirral, Humberside and Kent.

Delaying the virus

Chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty said all cases were being investigated and contact tracing had begun.

He said: “Eight patients had recently travelled from Italy, one from Germany, one from Singapore, one from Japan and one from Iran.”

The emergency battle plan sets out possible strategies for delaying spread of the virus, including school closures, “reducing the number of large-scale gatherings” and encouraging greater home working.

Launching the plan at a Downing Street press conference, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he had “no doubt at all” the “country is going to get through coronavirus and get through it in good shape”.

He said it was “highly likely” the UK would see more widespread infection than at present, but he added: “Let me be absolutely clear that for the overwhelming majority of people who contract the virus, this will be a mild disease from which they will speedily and fully recover, as we have already seen.”

Mr Johnson said “keeping the country safe is the government’s overriding priority” and the plan showed “we are committed to doing everything possible”.

Level Four Incident

The document’s release comes a day after NHS England ordered all hospitals to review their numbers of intensive care beds and how they could be increased to cope with a surge in patients.

In a letter sent to bosses on Monday, NHS strategic incident director Keith Willett said a level four incident had been declared – the highest category – and that patients infected with coronavirus could soon start to be treated on hospital wards as the numbers affected grow.

Hospital chiefs have been told to draw up plans to segregate wards such as A&E departments in the event of a “significant escalation” in cases.

All adults and children in intensive care with any kind of respiratory infection must also now be tested for the virus.

Government scientific experts predict the UK would see a coronavirus peak two to three months after sustained person-to-person transmission becomes established across the country.

There will then be a further two to three months of decline, meaning an outbreak could last around four to six months.

The Department of Health and Social Care said fire and rescue services would also only focus on their most critical functions if a pandemic was reached.

During yesterday’s press conference, Mr Johnson pointed to “long-established plans” by which the police would keep the public safe, but would “prioritise those things that they have to do”.

e said: “And the army is of course always ready to back-fill as and when, but that is under the reasonable worst-case scenario.”

PM to continue to shake hands

Mr Johnson said he continues to shake hands with the people he meets.

He said: “I am shaking hands. I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were coronavirus patients and I was shaking hands with everybody you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.

“People must make up their own minds, but I think the scientific evidence is… our judgment is that washing your hands is the crucial thing.”

On travel plans, the chief scientific adviser to the government, Sir Patrick Vallance, said: “Once the epidemic is everywhere, then actually restricting travel makes no difference at all.”

He said as the virus grows in the UK, “then of course it doesn’t really make more sense to say that you’re at more risk somewhere else than you are here”.

Mr Hancock said home ventilation kits were being expanded, although it was unclear how these will be used.

Speaking in the Commons, he also said ten schools were closed and a wider communications campaign will be launched today.

The government is also “currently engaged with just over a dozen companies to try to come up with a bedside test” for the virus, he said.

Officials hope to delay the peak of the virus until the warmer months when health services are less busy coping with seasonal flu.

Globally, more than 90,000 cases have been confirmed, with more than 3,000 deaths.