Britons face coronavirus screening amid fears the number of infections on UK soil could ‘explode’ after a ‘worst case’ government report predicted 80 per cent of the population could catch it if it takes hold.
The Department of Health is ramping up detection methods so anyone with a severe chest infection at one of 11 NHS hospitals or around 100 GP practices dotted around the country will automatically be tested for the deadly infection – even if they haven’t been to an at-risk country.
Until now, members of the public were only tested if they were both ill and had a link to China or another country at the heart of the outbreak in East Asia. Now broader testing will be done to stay a step ahead of the virus.
Screening will be ratcheted up to try to catch the virus on a local scale and avoid a sudden surge in infections, which could only become obvious when it is too late to stop the spread. It comes after an explosion in cases in Italy over the weekend saw more than 300 people diagnosed with the illness and travellers carry it to Austria, Switzerland and Croatia.
It came as reports revealed a government ‘worst-case’ planning memo predicted more than 80 per cent of the 66million people in Britain could contract the disease, of which 500,000 may die.
Seven British schools have closed and 18 more in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have told pupils and staff to go into self-isolation after half-term skiing trips to northern Italy.
Professor Paul Cosford, medical director for Public Health England, today admitted the Government does not know how many Brits have come back from skiing trips to the north of Italy but said it was a ‘significant number’.
Official advice was changed on Tuesday to say that people should self-isolate at home if they have travelled home from one of 11 quarantined towns in the Lombardy and Veneto regions, or if they feel ill after visiting north of Pisa.
But health bosses triggered confusion yesterday about whether it was safe to travel in future. When asked if he would go to northern Italy, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said ‘I’m not planning on going, put it that way’ in an interview.
However, PHE’s Professor Cosford, said it would be ‘unreasonable’ to advise people not to travel to Italy, and the Foreign Office does not warn against any other parts of the country.
The dramatic escalation in policy comes as the global number of cases of COVID-19 jumped above 81,000, with more than 2,762 now dead. The situation is beginning to level off in China as infections continue to spike in South Korea and Iran.