The UK is “likely” to see an epidemic of coronavirus, England’s Chief Medical Officer has said, as he warned that community transmission is undoubtedly already occurring.
Professor Chris Whitty told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “At this point in time we think it is likely, not definite, that we will move into onward transmission and an epidemic here in the UK.”
He said the NHS would cope with a major spread of cases but could come under “very high pressure” in a large epidemic.
He told BBC Breakfast there could be a need to do “extreme things” to protect the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.
He said: “For the great majority of people this will be a mild or moderate disease, anything from a sniffle to having to go to bed for a few days, rather like with mild flu.
“And there are some people who will get it with no symptoms at all, but for a minority of people – and this is particular in people who are older people or people with pre-existing health conditions – the risk is higher.
“The NHS will always cope because the NHS is an emergency service which is very good at adapting to what it finds itself with.”
But he said if the UK sees a very large epidemic, “then it will put very high pressure on the NHS” and there could be “several weeks which could be very difficult” for the health service and wider society.
Prof Whitty said he believes there is now onward transmission between people in the UK – which could lead to spiralling numbers – although only two cases of this nature have been identified so far.
He said the NHS would look to retired doctors for help, as well as “getting doctors doing one kind of a job doing another kind of the job”.
In the case of a significant epidemic, ministers would need to look at a range of measures, “some of which will be very social disruptive”, he added.
“In the longer run, we might have to do more extreme things, particularly to protect older or more vulnerable people in society.”
On shutting down cities, Prof Whitty said: “Closing cities is really only appropriate if you have a significant epidemic in one particular place and almost nothing anywhere else.
“It made sense for China to respond in the way it did but it would be very unlikely here… This is now in multiple places in Europe and around the world.”
Prof Whitty’s comments came as the London Book Fair at Olympia from March 10 to 12 was cancelled after major publishers pulled out amid coronavirus fears.
Elsewhere, two people in Carlisle have tested positive for Covid-19.
Both had recently returned from a trip to northern Italy. One is a member of healthcare staff at the Cumberland Infirmary.
Also on Wednesday, the Government launched a new campaign to encourage people to take simple steps to protect themselves.
A letter to NHS trusts has also been published telling them to ramp up their plans for tackling Covid-19, including seeing patients via video-link.
In the letter, NHS strategic incident director Professor Keith Willett and incident director Stephen Groves say acute wards may be used and coronavirus patients should be separated out.
It sets out that a level 4 NHS incident has been declared – the highest level – and to date, Covid-19 has been managed as an infectious disease through specialist NHS centres.
But it says “it is now appropriate to begin to manage some patients within wider infectious disease units and, in due course if the number of cases continues to grow, we will need to use all acute units”.
The document says managers should review critical care and high dependency capacity and consider how it could be increased.
It adds: “Where possible, consider implementing alternative models such as remote consultations for those patients who can be supported at home and review arrangements to support vulnerable individuals in alternative settings, including in the community.”
Prof Whitty told the Today programme that “video conference consultations” should be looked at “very seriously” to relieve pressure on the NHS.
According to the latest Department of Health figures, 51 people in the UK have been diagnosed with coronavirus, although authorities in Scotland confirmed two more cases overnight into Wednesday.
The new Government publicity campaign seeks to drive home the message that regular hand-washing is the single most important action individuals can take in the fight against Covid-19.
It comes the day after the Government launched its “battle plan” to combat the outbreak with a warning that up to a fifth of the UK workforce could be off sick when the virus hits its peak.
The new adverts say hand-washing should be for 20 seconds, using soap and water or hand sanitiser.
The Government “battle plan” sets out possible strategies for delaying the virus spread including school closures, “reducing the number of large-scale gatherings” and encouraging greater home working.
In a worst case scenario, it said up to 80% of the population could become infected, with people hospitalised with pneumonia and a relatively high death rate among the elderly and frail.
The document also raises the possibility that at the virus peak, police could switch to dealing with only serious crime and maintaining public order while the military could be drafted in to support the emergency services.
Government scientific experts predict the UK’s coronavirus outbreak could last around four to six months.
Globally, eight new countries – Andorra, Jordan, Latvia, Morocco, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Tunisia – have reported cases of coronavirus since Tuesday.
There are now more than 90,000 cases worldwide with more than 3,000 deaths.