Schools across the UK have closed their doors to students at risk of coronavirus while all patients are to be routinely tested for the disease in a dramatic escalation of screening by health officials
Cransley School in Cheshire and Trinity Catholic College in Teeside have both closed while Brine Leas School in Cheshire has shut its sixth form unit after pupils and staff returned from a ski trip in the Lombardy region of Italy, which has been badly hit by coronavirus.
Elsewhere at least 11 schools in Cornwall, Yorkshire, Pembrokeshire, Guernsey, Co Antrim, Co Derry and Co Down have sent pupils home to self-quarantine after returning from similar trips.
It comes as England’s top doctor warned the UK could be forced to quarantine families and reduce transport if the virus becomes a global pandemic. NHS bosses have also expressed concerns about the impact any surge in cases could have on an already under pressure health system.
Public Health England said flu patients in intensive care units and respiratory wards at eight NHS hospitals would be tested for coronavirus as well as at 100 primary care centre such as GP surgeries.
Up to now tests have only been carried out on those suspected of being infected but this new regime is designed to identify whether the virus, which originated in China, is spreading throughout the country without being detected.
PHE said it did not believe this was currently happening but widening the testing would allow it to spot any circulation and act immediately to prevent it spreading further.
Medical director Professor Yvonne Doyle said this was about taking a “belt-and-braces approach”, adding: “There is no change in risk for the public but taking this preparatory step now will enable us to better detect and contain the spread of the virus.”
The UK’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told journalists the government’s contingency plans included restricting travel and closing schools.
He said: “There’s a variety of things you need to look at, you look at things like school closures, you look at things like reducing transport.
“The expectation is not that we will do all these things, the expectation is we will be looking systematically, using the science, at all the building blocks and balancing the effects against costs to society.”
He added: “We might want to look at things like should people stay at home with their families in that situation. It’s one of the things we would want to think about.”
But Prof Whitty said he was “completely confident” the NHS could manage current level of activity caused by the coronavirus, adding: “This is still potentially containable.”
It comes as the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned the virus was “literally knocking at the door” of countries around the globe, and said governments may need to activate their “pandemic plans”. In the US, officials warned businesses and schools to do what they could to prepare for an outbreak there.
The number of cases in Spain has now reached five with the first cases reported on the mainland. Switzerland has also confirmed its first case of coronavirus, while France announced two additional cases.
In Italy – Europe’s worst-hit nation – the death toll has increased to 11, while the number of people infected grew by 45 per cent to 322 – 100 more than the previous day.
The Foreign Office has updated its travel advice, warning against all but essential travel to 11 quarantined towns in Italy. The government said anyone returning from those towns must self-isolate.
In Tenerife, part of Spain’s Canary Islands, a hotel has been locked down after a visiting Italian doctor tested positive for coronavirus.
Saffron Cordrey, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, told The Independent that while the NHS was well prepared and had plans in place for any surge in cases its staff would be affected.
She said: “Staff will be at the forefront of these efforts and are already working hard to keep people safe and to control the impact and spread of the virus. This has come at a very busy time for the NHS – in the midst of a challenging winter, with services running at full stretch.
“These same staff are now under increasing pressure to prepare for and handle potential cases of coronavirus in order to help keep the public safe. The impact is felt beyond hospitals and A&E departments. For example, it takes up to eight hours for an ambulance to be fully disinfected after a potential case, and in some places staff will now be travelling to test people at home in order to limit the threat of the virus.
“It is vital that this additional effort is properly resourced, and does not impinge on the vital day to day work of NHS staff.”