Health Officials Defend UK COVID-19 Tactics

Peter Russell

March 10, 2020

Editor's note:Find the latest COVID-19 news in Medscape UK's Coronavirus Resource Centre.    

A sixth person has died in the UK after testing positive for COVID-19, the NHS announced.

The man, who died on Monday evening at Watford General Hospital, was in his 80s and had underlying health conditions, a statement from West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust said.

Later, Health Minister Nadine Dorries said she had been diagnosed with coronavirus and was self-isolating at home. She is the first member of Parliament to test positive for COVID-19.

Self-isolation 'Could Be Stepped Up Within Two Weeks'

The decision to postpone 'social distancing' measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the UK was defended by health experts.

Yesterday's meeting of the Government's emergency COBRA committee decided against an emphatic switch from the 'contain' to the 'delay' phase of the official response. Speaking afterwards, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "We remain in the contain phase of the outbreak, but watching what is happening around the world, our scientists think containment is extremely unlikely to work on its own, and that is why we are making extensive preparations for a move to the delay phase.

"We are preparing various actions to slow the spread of this disease in order to reduce the strain it places on the NHS."

Prof Chris Whitty, the Government's Chief Medical Adviser, said that people who showed even minor signs of respiratory tract infections or fever could, within the next 10 to 14 days, be asked to self-isolate for a week in an effort to tackle the coronavirus.

Dr Alexander Edwards, associate professor in biomedical technology at the University of Reading, told the Science Media Centre: "This looks like a sound strategy from the health authorities in the UK. The chief scientists have put forward a good balance between preventative measures to stop the spread of the virus, and preventing 'crisis fatigue' from setting in."

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said that moving from the containment phase to a strategy of delaying the spread of COVID-19 would have implications. "When we do move to the 'delay' phase the UK government will have to consider introducing a raft of measures – perhaps similar to those now in place in northern Italy – in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19."

Would Italian Restrictions Work in the UK?

Stringent restrictions were extended across the whole of Italy this morning after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a ban on all but essential travel and cancellation of public gatherings, including Serie A football matches.

Dr Stephen Kerr, a UK trained GP who practices in Florence, told Medscape News UK : "This lockdown is a bit of a surprise to everyone. Extending this 'red zone' from Northern Italy to the whole of Italy was a bit of a surprise and I think a lot of people will be more panicked now."

Roads were empty, and travellers were expected to produce permits showing they had the right to move between communities.

Asked whether the UK could find itself in similar straits to Italy within the next fortnight, Dr Kerr said: "Yes. I'm not an infectious diseases epidemiologist, but I think it must follow the same path."

However, John Edmunds, professor in the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the sweeping restrictions imposed on 60 million Italians were "unprecedented and almost certainly unsustainable".

He said: "This will be a long epidemic and the appropriate measures need to be taken at the right time to maximise their impact, help ensure compliance and minimise economic and social costs."

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia predicted that the nationwide controls would not reduce infection rates in Italy but might delay the spread of the virus until the spring.

He said similar tough restrictions would not be appropriate in the UK "as we are currently seeing a much more gradual increase in numbers".

Dr Jenny Harries, England's Deputy Chief Medical Officer said experts were assessing new cases on an hourly basis to achieve a "balanced response".

She told BBC TV earlier that further measures could be introduced as cases began to rise rapidly over the next 2 weeks.

Dr Harries said that banning large public gatherings, including sporting events, would not necessarily slow infection rates. "The virus will not survive very long outside," she said.

Her comments came as crowds of around 65,000 gathered for the first of 4 days of jump racing at the Cheltenham Festival.

However, the British Embassy in Athens warned Wolverhampton FC fans to stay away from Wolves' UEFA Europa League tie against Olympiacos this Thursday after Greek Government restrictions meant the match would be played behind closed doors because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

Later, tonight's Manchester City's Premier League match with Arsenal was postponed and several Arsenal players are in self-isolation. They'd been in contact with the Olympiakos owner Evangelos Marinakis who has tested positive for coronavirus.

Campaign Against 'Fake News'

The NHS said it was taking a tough stance against 'fake news' to curb the spread of misleading information about the coronavirus.

It said it was working with Google, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to help ensure that accurate NHS information was at the top of search pages.

A package of measures included suspending Twitter accounts falsely posing as hospitals and distributing inaccurate figures for the number of COVID-19 cases.

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive said: "Ensuring the public has easy access to accurate NHS advice however they search for it, not only will support people to take the right action but will also help the country’s response to coronavirus.

"The NHS has already been battling coronavirus fake news, from working to take down false Twitter accounts to speaking out against misleading treatments being promoted by homeopaths online."

Professor Jonathan Benger, chief medical officer at NHS Digital, which runs the NHS website commented: "Getting the right health information to the public is essential, particularly during outbreaks of disease."

Editor's Note, 11th March 2020: This article was updated to include Nadine Dorries' diagnosis and the Manchester City-Arsenal match being postponed. 

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