As of Tuesday 3rd March, the 51st person in the UK has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and the NHS has subsequently declared the outbreak a Level 4 incident, the highest level of public health emergency. The government has also drawn up an “action plan” to face the spread of disease. This includes the possibility of staff shortages, particularly within the emergency services, which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested that members of the British Army would fill in a “worst-case scenario”. So far, around 1% of people diagnosed have died from the respiratory disease.
The 28-page document released by the government warns that “based on experience with previous outbreaks, it may be that widespread exposure in the UK is inevitable”, as well as predicting that at peak crisis level one fifth of the UK workforce could be off sick or self-isolating. The disease is also compared to the Spanish flu, and the plan acknowledges that more deaths in the UK as a result of the virus are to be expected; it promises to “ensure dignified treatment of all affected, including those who die”. Contracting pneumonia as a complication of coronavirus is particularly dangerous to the elderly.
Potential measures outlined in the document describe a stripping-back of the capabilities of our police force and public healthcare, with serious crimes and the critically ill being prioritised. It also broaches the possibility of military personnel being drafted in to fill emergency service roles if large numbers of staff members fall ill. The plan emphasises four urgent aims to reduce harm: containing the illness, delaying the spread (it is highlighted that people are likely to be more vulnerable, and GP surgeries more busy, during the winter period), gaining firmer knowledge about the virus itself and mitigating overall disruption to society.
Despite warning the public to anticipate a rise in diagnoses, Johnson stressed 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,” but that the plan had been written “based on the advice of our world-leading scientific experts, to prepare for all eventualities." Johnson has also confirmed that he is “well aware” of that those on zero-hour contracts are facing the reality of self-isolating with no statutory sick pay. His government has not yet offered advice or a solution to this.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed that the NHS are currently working on expanding their stores of home ventilation kits, which are distributed to assist patients suffering from respiratory failure. Hancock explained: “A lot of people, not least because it is mild, will be best off at home than in hospital.” The advice of the Health Secretary on preventing the disease spreading is to encourage thorough and frequent handwashing, and to reduce the burden on the NHS by postponing all except urgent necessary doctors’ visits.