UK health officials have moved into the second phase of their response to the coronavirus outbreak.
Prof Chris Whitty, the country’s chief medical adviser, told MPs it was “highly likely” there was now some “community transmission” within the UK.
Measures will be ramped up to slow the spread of the virus and could involve “changes to society”, he said.
Three new cases of the virus in Scotland have brought the total number of positive tests in the UK to 90.
Speaking to a committee of MPs, Prof Whitty said the country was now “mainly” in the delay phase of the government’s four-part plan to tackle the virus, but was still following aspects of the first phase.
It is still being decided what measures will be taken in the delay phase – but the government has said they could include banning big events, closing schools and dissuading people from using public transport.
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Prof Whitty said benefits of the delay phase included:
- Pushing the peak of cases “further away from the winter pressures on the NHS” so that there was “more capacity to respond”
- Buying time to allow the UK to improve its response or develop counter measures such as drugs, vaccines and diagnostics
- There may be a seasonal element of the virus – so if the peak was delayed to spring or summer, the “natural rate” of transmission could be lower
On Wednesday the highest day-on-day rise in cases in the UK was reported, when the number of cases jumped from 51 to 87.
The UK’s early response to the virus, which causes Covid-19, was based on the spread being controlled in China, with some minor outbreaks in other countries, Prof Whitty said.
But he added: “The chances of that happening are now very slim. Slim to zero.”
In other recent developments:
- UK airline Flybe has gone into administration and says coronavirus is partly to blame
- England’s Six Nations games against Italy in Rome on 14 and 15 March are expected to be postponed – rather than taking place behind closed doors – as a response to the outbreak
- Iran will close schools and universities until 20 March in an attempt to curb the spread
- Switzerland has reported its first death from the virus – a 74-year-old woman who died in hospital in Lausanne
- California has declared a state of emergency after announcing its first coronavirus death, bringing the US death toll from the disease to 11
- And the world’s biggest dog show, Crufts, has begun in Birmingham, despite two major sponsors pulling out of the event amid fears over the virus
About 90,000 people have been infected globally since the outbreak of coronavirus in Hubei province, China, in December, with cases in more than 50 countries and more than 3,000 deaths.
Last week, a British man who was infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan became the first UK citizen to die from the virus.