Coronavirus: UK says peak of its outbreak up to 14 weeks away

Boris Johnson announces new measures to combat virus but keeps schools open

British prime minister Boris Johnson: “Many more families are going to lose their loved ones before their time,” he said. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Boris Johnson ramped up the UK's efforts to combat coronavirus on Thursday, moving the government to the "delay" phase and telling British people with even mild symptoms to stay at home for seven days.

However, the prime minister said he would not follow the example of Ireland and Italy and close schools to limit the spread of the disease. "We are not closing schools now, the scientific advice is this could do more harm than good." But he said that the advice would be under review.

Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, said he currently expected the UK would reach the peak of its coronavirus outbreak in 10 to 14 weeks' time. "If you move too early, people get fatigued," he said, referring to the government's response. "This is a long haul."

Speaking from Downing Street, the prime minister said his government had “done what can be done to contain the disease” but admitted “this is the worst public health crisis for a generation”. Mr Johnson offered a stark warning about the dangers posed by the coronavirus.


“I must level with you, the British public. Many more families are going to lose their loved ones before their time,” he said. Mr Johnson added that because of a lack of immunity, the coronavirus was more dangerous than ordinary flu and it was “going to spread further”.

From Friday, Mr Johnson said that anyone with coronavirus symptoms, including a cough or high temperature, must stay at home for seven days. In the coming weeks, everyone living in a household with someone who has those symptoms will be asked to stay at home.

The prime minister also advised those over 70 not to go on cruises and suggested international school trips should be cancelled.

NHS defence

The prime minister defended his government’s decision to contain the disease in order to ease pressure on the NHS. “If we delay the peak even by a few weeks, then our NHS will be in a stronger state . . . we can also act to stretch the peak for a longer period so our society is better able to cope.”

Patrick Vallance, chief scientific officer, said that between 5,000 and 10,000 people in the UK will already have the virus and "it is not possible to stop everyone getting it". "The actions we need to take are to delay the peak and to push the peak down."

The government is coming under increasing pressure to ban major public events, such as sporting fixtures. But Mr Johnson said it would have “little effect” on halting the spread of the disease. “At all stages, we have been guided by science. We will do the right thing at the right time.”

As the government’s preparations ramp up, Mr Johnson warned that the UK would face “severe disruption across the country for many months” that would require the authorities to “mobilise millions of people to help and support each other”. But he said: “The government will do all it can to help you and your family.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020