Coronavirus: UK to enter ‘delay’ phase to stem outbreak after Boris Johnson chairs Cobra meeting

New measures could include school closures, cancelling large public gatherings and encouraging people to work from home

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Thursday 12 March 2020 00:04 GMT
Coronavirus outbreak labelled as pandemic by World Health Organization

The UK is expected to shift to the next phase of its battle against the coronavirus outbreak following a meeting of the government’s emergency Cobra committee on Thursday.

Boris Johnson will chair top-level talks with medical experts and ministers on Thursday, which is expected to formally escalate the response to the “delay” phase of its action plan, No 10 confirmed.

New measures could include school closures, cancelling large public gatherings and encouraging people to work from home as health officials try to stem the spread of the virus.

As the number of deaths in the UK rose to eight, the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirmed on Thursday that the global outbreak would be labelled as a pandemic due to its spread across multiple countries at the same time.

Britain has been in the "containment" stage of its response to coronavirus up to this point, which focused on catching cases early and tracing contacts with infected people.

But the government has faced pressure to escalate its response, with former Tory cabinet minister Rory Stewart condemning their efforts as "half-hearted".

The prime minister's official spokesman said: "COBRA will be chaired by the PM at lunchtime tomorrow.

"At the meeting, it’s expected that a decision will be made to move into the delay phase."

Officials will recommend "social distancing" measures such as avoiding public transport and working from home, in an attempt to buy time to test drugs and push the peak of the outbreak towards the warmer summer months.

It comes as Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said the parliamentary authorities were resolved the keep the Palace of Westminster open amid fears over the spread of the virus amongst MPs and staff.

He also said emergency legislation would come before the Commons next week on measures to tackle coronavirus.

Health minister Nadine Dorries was diagnosed with coronavirus at the weekend, prompting concern over whether thousands of people working in the Commons and the Lords could have caught the illness.

Mr Hancock said there was no need for for concern for anyone who has not had sustained contact with Ms Dorries and she was doing "exactly the right thing" by staying at home.

He said he understood how worried people were by the outbreak, but added: "The best way to beat it is for us to work together and we'll do whatever it takes, we'll give the NHS whatever it needs and we'll do all that we can to keep people safe and get through this together as a parliament and as a nation."

Earlier, Rishi Sunak set out plans for the NHS in his Budget and pledged security and support for those who are sick and unable to work due to the spread of Covid-19.

The chancellor said: "Whatever extra resources our NHS needs to cope with coronavirus it will get - whether it's millions of pounds or billions of pounds, whatever it needs, whatever it costs, we stand behind our NHS."

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