In Depth

‘No cosy consensus’ on coronavirus: what will the government do next?

Boris Johnson’s main scientific advisers disagree on next steps to tackle outbreak

Scientists and health experts all agree that coronavirus presents an unprecedented challenge to the world.

But Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, says there is no agreement on what steps should be taken next to curb the outbreak.

Vallance told the parliamentary Health and Social Care Select Committee that those working for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which he chairs, had different opinions.

“If you think Sage and the way Sage works is a cosy consensus of agreeing scientists you would be very mistaken. It is a lively and robust discussion with multiple inputs,” he said.

“We don’t try to get everybody saying exactly the same thing. The idea is to look at the evidence and come up with the answers as best we can,” The Times reports.

Ministers had taken scientific advice, prioritising stopping the virus without considering the economy, said Vallance.

“The advice that we’ve given from Sage which is based on modelling virology, clinical behavioural science… has been really carefully listened to and hasn’t been in any way from our perspective overlain with economic considerations as a reason to change the advice.”

What steps are the government considering next?

Emergency powers

The government is likely to introduce sweeping emergency powers this week to combat coronavirus.

The measures, unprecedented in peacetime, could see airports shut and people detained on public health grounds, says the BBC. Border Force could suspend operations at all transport hubs if there are insufficient resources to maintain border security.

Police and immigration officials will be given powers to arrest and test people suspected of carrying coronavirus.

Court hearings could take place via phone or video call, while recently retired medical staff could return to work without any negative effect on their entitlements.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the measures were “proportionate to the threat we face”, and stressed they would only be used “when strictly necessary”. The powers would remain in place only for as long as the government needed them to respond to the crisis.

“By planning for the worst and working for the best we will get through this, but this is a national effort and we must all work together,” he said. “Crucially they give the government the powers it needs to protect lives.”

Financial measures

Chancellor Rishi Sunak said yesterday that the government will do “whatever it takes” to support the UK economy through the coronavirus crisis.

Sunak unveiled an “unprecedented” £330bn loan scheme to support businesses, alongside a raft of “direct support” measures including tax cuts, millions in grants and three-month “mortgage holidays”.

People struggling to pay their mortgages will be given payment holidays of up to three months, while Sunak also said: “We want to build a bold and ambitious employment support package.”

But “there are still holes in the vast plans”, writes BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg.

At Prime Minister's Questions today, Johnson suggested there would be new measures to help renters and enhance sick pay, with a temporary universal basic income being considered.

Lockdown

The public has been asked to avoid all “non-essential” social contact and travel, and to work from home where possible. This is particularly important for over-70s, those with underlying health conditions, and pregnant women.

The government has also advised everybody to avoid public places like pubs, restaurants and theatres. This is especially important in London, which is “a few weeks ahead” of the rest of the UK.

By the weekend, over-70s, pregnant women and those with serious health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, or asthma will be asked to be shielded from social contact for 12 weeks.

Testing

The UK government has vowed to accelerate coronavirus testing as health experts urge authorities worldwide to step up their screening efforts. 

Amid fears that countless people in countries worldwide may be carrying the virus but not showing symptoms, the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged governments to “test, test, test”.

At the moment, testing in the UK is generally being carried out only on those admitted to hospital who go into intensive care or have pneumonia.

England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, has said that there are “significant moves afoot” to accelerate testing for the virus by the NHS.

But “for now”, he said, tests would continue to be reserved for identifying suspected cases that would “help us most”.

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School closures 

The new emergency powers bill will give ministers the power to close schools or keep them open, but for the time being, schools and universities remain open.

“Those things need to be done at the right time,” said Vallance.

The theory behind closing schools is that it will slow the rate of infection, thereby limiting the burden on the health service – the proper functioning of which is essential to saving as many lives as possible.

But closing schools would mean parents having to take time off work. If health workers can no longer do their jobs because they are looking after children, this would also stall NHS efforts.

A 2009 paper in The Lancet found that “for many countries, school closure might be particularly disruptive for health-care systems”.

In the UK, the paper found, 21% of doctors and nurses “reported they would likely be absent from work if schools closed during a pandemic… For health-care systems that are run with very high levels of bed occupancy in a typical winter, even a small absence of health-care staff might have immediate and deleterious effects.”

Schools in Scotland and Wales are due to close on Friday, with England expected to follow suit.

Today, Johnson told Parliament it “should expect further decisions to be taken imminently on schools and how to make sure we square the circle of making sure we stop the spread of the disease but also making sure we relieve, as much as we can, pressure on our NHS”.

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