Coronavirus: Government works to make sure any Covid-19 epidemic is delayed to summer, writes Robert Peston
The core of the government’s “coronavirus action plan”, published this morning, is to attempt to delay a major outbreak till the warmer months, when pressure on the NHS from seasonal illnesses like flu should have reduced.
All efforts are aimed at making sure that if there is an epidemic, its peak is no earlier than June or July. This seems realistic, according to the government’s scientific advisers, because the numbers infected seems to double every five days or so, based on data from Wuhan and the rest of the world.
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That data also indicates that the maximum mortality rate is probably one per cent of those infected. And although there is a worst case infection rate of 80 per cent of the population, the more reasonable assumption from the experience of Wuhan is 20 per cent.
Those most at risk of serious illness or death are the elderly and those with serious pre-existing medical conditions. Children seem to experience only very mild symptoms.
Right now the UK government is still in what it calls the containment phase of managing the outbreak, which is aimed at trying to prevent a widespread outbreak. However within weeks officials expect to move to a “delay” phase, to try to manage the timing of any epidemic so that it falls in the warmer months - though is not delayed so long that it occurs next autumn and winter.
As and when there is an epidemic, the government says “it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks”.
As I mentioned yesterday, this will cause huge costs for businesses and government. It will also pose massive challenges for care of the sick and elderly and for law and order.
The government’s contingency plans include proposals for non urgent operations to be cancelled in hospitals and for police to concentrate only on urgent crimes.
What is also striking is that the government’s medical advisers are more worried about infection being transmitted in small gatherings like pubs than big events such as football matches.