Government to shut schools in event of UK coronavirus outbreak

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No 10 planning for ‘all eventualities’ if number of coronavirus cases surge in UK

UK nationals who were quarantined on the coronavirus-hit Diamond Princess cruise liner have been repatriated after testing negative. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Emergency planners would consider temporarily shutting schools in affected areas if there was a sudden surge in coronavirus cases in any part of the UK, as part of contingency plans being drawn up by the government.

Department of Health sources pointed to official advisory documents, which suggest that school closures could not only potentially protect children from infection but reduce the overall transmission of the virus across the population.

The government’s Influenza Pandemic Strategy says “using a precautionary approach”, directors of public health “may advise localised closures” of schools “to reduce the initial spread of infection locally”.

However, more dramatic measures such as cutting off local populations – as the Italian government has done in northern Lombardy and Veneto – or closing down travel routes will only be considered as an unlikely last resort, sources added.

Questions about the British government’s readiness were given extra urgency after events in Italy in recent days. The country reported an unexpected upsurge in cases. It has, at 219, the most in recorded in Europe.

Italy hit by largest coronavirus outbreak outside Asia – video

The Italian authorities have decided to introduce stringent restrictions, including a curfew in 11 affected towns in the north of the country, as well as wider travel restrictions. Schools, museums and cinemas have been closed. Advertisement

No 10 said at lunchtime it was planning for “all eventualities” if the number of coronavirus cases were to lift off similarly in the UK – although the prime minister’s spokesman said the risk to the British public remained low at present.

“We are well prepared for UK cases. We are using tried and tested procedures to prevent further spread and the NHS is extremely well prepared and used to managing infections,” the spokesman said.

The Department of Health believes it will be not until about May that it will be clearer what impact the virus is having on the UK, the rough estimated timescale between any initial arrival of the disease and its fullest extent.

So far, however, there have been only a handful of British cases. There have been 13 positive tests for coronavirus during the current outbreak in the country so far, while some Britons returning from China were quarantined for a fortnight in a hospital in the Wirral, near Liverpool.

Shutting down movement within the UK is seen as counterproductive, according to the official plan being followed by the department. There is “a lack of scientific evidence on the impact of internal travel restrictions on transmission” and it concludes that “for these reasons, the working presumption will be that government will not impose any such restrictions” on travel in a pandemic situation.

Public gatherings are also unlikely to be restricted because there is “very limited evidence that restrictions on mass gatherings will have any significant effect on influenza virus transmission”. Crowded places “are an important indicator of ‘normality’ and may help maintain public morale during a pandemic”.

A pandemic virus could kill about 2.5% of the people it infects, a total of 750,000 people in the UK, according to the Department of Health.

But emergency planners around the country are supposed to have drawn up contingency plans for a realistic worst-case scenario, which involves managing an illness that kills between 210,000 and 315,000 Britons.

Expert estimates, cited by the World Health Organization on Monday, indicate the death rate in Wuhan, the the Chinese city at the centre of the virus, is between 2% and 4% – but more widely across China the figure is at 0.7%.

Similar responses and planning mechanisms are used to deal with civil unrest, chemical and nuclear incidents, all relying on the civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office, which staffs the emergency planning Cobra system.

If necessary, ministers could deploy emergency martial law style powers under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, although few think it will come close to being necessary.

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