LONDON (Reuters) - Britain is moving into the second of four phases in its plan to tackle the spread of coronavirus, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said on Thursday, as the UK recorded its first death of a patient and confirmed cases rose.
Britain has so far registered 115 cases of the coronavirus known as COVID-19, which started in China, but has held off from introducing measures to restrict movement or cancel large gatherings for fear of hurting the economy.
Whitty said in a statement later that the person who died was an older patient with underlying health conditions.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he is optimistic that Britain is well prepared to cope with the spread of the virus, but early on Thursday regional airline Flybe became one of the first big corporate casualties of the outbreak.
Health minister Matt Hancock said the coming weeks would be tough. But with calm heads and clear determination, together we can see it through”.
The government set out its action plan earlier this week based on four stages: containing the virus; delaying its transmission; researching its origins and mitigating its impact.
Questioned by lawmakers earlier on Thursday, Whitty said Britain had mainly moved into the second stage and was now considering measures to try to delay the peak of an epidemic which officials are anticipating in the coming weeks.
“The original plan ... was very much predicated on the idea of ‘if it could be controlled in China and contained everywhere else, this virus might go away’. I think the chances of that happening are now very slim. Slim to zero,” Whitty said.
“As time goes by, we then may start to move into the more socially determined actions ... We’ve moved from a situation where we were mainly in contain ... to now we’re basically mainly delay.”
Johnson was briefed after a meeting of Britain’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, his spokesman said.
“It is now highly likely that the virus is going to spread in a significant way,” the spokesman said. “Officials will therefore accelerate work on preparations for the ‘delay’ phase of the government’s plan, focusing on steps we could take to seek to delay the spread of the virus.”
The government has said it could encourage home-working, cancel large-scale gatherings and possibly close schools to slow its spread and delay the peak of the outbreak until later in the year, when the health service is under less pressure.
Whitty also said that with older people more vulnerable to the virus, there may be measures announced to encourage them to stay away from public places, such as the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the lower house of parliament, told lawmakers there were no plans to close the House of Commons.
Additional rreporting by William James; editing by Estelle Shirbon and Stephen Addison