Covid-19 ‘social distancing’ measures proposed to protect vulnerable

Author: Mark Gould

The government is in the process of signing off plans to move away from the "containment" phase of the Covid-19 outbreak to the "delay" stage at an emergency Cobra meeting later today.

The UK is currently in the first stage of the government's four-part plan of "containment, delay, mitigation and research" - which runs alongside the other phases

The “delay” stage will consider whether "social distancing" measures should be considered – such as restrictions on public gatherings above a certain number of people, although this is not thought likely at this stage. It will consider how the most vulnerable - the elderly and those with underlying conditions – can be protected. It will also allow the NHS some breathing space giving the competing demands of the winter season when there is already pressure on NHS beds.

Schools, colleges and other public facilities in the Republic of Ireland are to close to help combat the outbreak. Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said the measures would take effect from 18:00 on Thursday to 29 March.

Mr Varadkar said indoor mass gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people should be cancelled.

Care company Barchester, which runs more than 200 care homes across the UK, has already asked visitors to stay away. It said in a letter that "as a preventative measure, we are asking visitors, including family members and friends, to stop routinely visiting our care homes and hospitals until further notice".

Scottish secretary Alister Jack suggested new UK measures could include requiring people to stay at home if they have a raised temperature combined with symptoms of a cold.

Mr Jack told the BBC's Good Morning Scotland that people should prepare for advice to change in the event they develop a temperature and the symptoms of a cold.

"The advice going forward will be more along the lines of - if you have a temperature with a cold, and I emphasise you have to have a temperature, not to go to work," he said.

He added that the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions - including lung problems - should keep themselves "as contained as you possibly can".

The move could also result in people who show even minor signs of respiratory tract infections - such as a cough - or a fever soon being told to self-isolate - the advice already being given to people who have recently returned from affected countries or have been in close contact with a person who tested positive for the virus.

The move to “delay” is an acknowledgement the virus cannot be contained – which has been demonstrated by cases of community transmission within the UK rather than from people returning from abroad.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the BBC that any new measures would seek to protect people who are especially vulnerable.

"We now believe the virus could spread significantly," he said, adding that decisions would be made "at the right time in a measured way" and would be "guided by the science".

Mr Sunak told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that blanket bans on foreign travel like that imposed by the US are unlikely to have a "material effect" on the spread of infection.

He said the UK government was "looking at interventions that provide very high clinical benefit and minimise the social impact".