Coronavirus: British government urged to close schools as fourth person dies

People with colds or minor infections may be asked to self-isolate to delay spread of virus

Britain is preparing to ask people with minor respiratory infections such as a cough and cold to self-isolate for a week to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said the country was moving from attempting to contain the virus to a focus on delaying it.

“What we are moving now to is a phase when we will be having to ask members of the general public to do different things than they would normally do,” he said.

“We are now very close to the time, probably within the next 10 to 14 days, when the modelling would imply we should move to a situation where we say everybody who has even minor respiratory tract infections or a fever should be self-isolating for seven days afterwards.”

Prof Whitty was speaking at a press conference in Downing Street alongside Britain's prime minister, Boris Johnson, and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance. Mr Johnson defended his government's response to the virus against criticism that it has been too slow to encourage people to stay at home and to cancel mass gatherings.

‘Further steps’

“We will set out further steps in the days and weeks ahead to help people protect themselves, their family and in particular the elderly and vulnerable. And finally, while it is absolutely critical, it’s absolutely critical in managing the spread of this virus that we take the right decisions at the right time, based on the latest and best evidence. So we must not do things which have no or limited medical benefit, nor things which could turn out to be counterproductive,” he said.

There is no excuse for passengers not being tested off a plane from Milan last night

The prime minister was speaking as it was announced that a fourth person has died from the coronavirus in Britain, where 314 people have tested positive for the virus.

Former international development secretary Rory Stewart, who is running as an independent to be mayor of London, said on Monday that the government was making a mistake in not acting more aggressively. He said that China had shown the dangers of acting too slowly at first and the benefits of acting decisively later.

‘Shut now’

“Schools should be shut now. If the government are not prepared to shut them now, they should – at the very least – state clearly and transparently what their triggers will be for closing schools over the next few days. All medium and large gatherings should be cancelled. All passengers coming from hotspots should be tested and quarantined. There is no excuse for passengers not being tested off a plane from Milan last night. There is no justification for half-hearted measures,” he said.

Northern Ireland's first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill were among those who attended a Cobra emergency meeting on the virus in Downing Street on Monday.

The prime minister's official spokesman said health authorities and ministers in Britain and Ireland were keeping each other informed about the measures they are taking to deal with the virus.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times