UK government response to coronavirus ‘led by science’ – Grant Shapps | World news

Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, has rejected criticism the government is being too slow to introduce measures limiting the spread of coronavirus, saying ministers are rigorously following scientific advice rather than “doing things that just sound good”.

Speaking on a broadcast round, Shapps indicated that further restrictions could be announced following a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee on Monday, perhaps connected to large gatherings.

And following a wave of flight cancellations by airlines including easyJet, Shapps said the government would examine “lots of different options” to help the sector.

Ministers have come under pressure over a perception other countries, particularly elsewhere in Europe, are taking more stringent measures to combat the virus, and about a perceived lack of openness. News that older Britons could be told to self-isolate for months first emerged via an off-the-record briefing to ITV.

What is Covid-19 – the illness that started in Wuhan?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals.

What are the symptoms this coronavirus causes?

The virus can cause pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

In the UK, the medical advice is that if you have recently travelled from areas affected by coronavirus, you should:

  • stay indoors and avoid contact with other people as you would with the flu
  • call NHS 111 to inform them of your recent travel to the area

More NHS advice on what to do if you think you have been exposed to the virus can be found here, and the full travel advice to UK nationals is available here.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission in January, and there have been such transmissions elsewhere.

How many people have been affected?

As of 9 March, more than 110,000 people have been infected in more than 80 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

There have over 3,800 deaths globally. Just over 3,000 of those deaths have occurred in mainland China. 62,000 people have recovered from the coronavirus.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. Seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

Another key unknown is how contagious the coronavirus is. A crucial difference is that unlike flu, there is no vaccine for the new coronavirus, which means it is more difficult for vulnerable members of the population – elderly people or those with existing respiratory or immune problems – to protect themselves. Hand-washing and avoiding other people if you feel unwell are important. One sensible step is to get the flu vaccine, which will reduce the burden on health services if the outbreak turns into a wider epidemic.

Have there been other coronaviruses?

Severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

Sarah BoseleyHannah Devlin and Martin Belam

Boris Johnson will seek to address criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic by holding the first of what are intended to be daily ministerial press conferences on the crisis on Monday.

Shapps told Sky News the government was being led by “a real desire to be driven by the evidence and by the science”.

He said: “I don’t think that necessarily means that our approach is markedly different. But I do think it means we deploy each of these different measures at the appropriate time.”

Shapps said more measures could emerge after the Cobra meeting on Monday afternoon. “We are just being entirely science-led. We are not doing the things that perhaps are happening elsewhere just because it seems like a popular thing to do. We want to know that the scientists back it.”

With the virus the UK was arguably “at a slightly different stage compared with places like Italy but also a little behind where France and Germany are”, Shapps said. “It’s not that we’re not going to get there, but of course our responses are timed in a different way, unique to the particular stage of this that we’re in in the UK.”

A person wearing a face mask on the London underground on 15 March.

A person wearing a face mask on the London underground. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

He said: “I do think it’s important that we do not get knocked off the course of what this country has done very well so far, which is to follow the medical and scientific advice, rather than doing things that just sound good but perhaps don’t have the right impact at the right moment in time.”

On the way the news about people over 70 being told to stay at home emerged, Shapps said the government wanted to be “completely open”, pointing to the new daily press conferences. But he added: “I’m afraid I can’t be in control of every blog that a political journalist decides to write.”

On the troubles faced by airlines such as Easyjet, which announced more “significant cancellations” on Monday, Shapps said viable companies would be offered help, for example on deferring tax, to help them cope with the global disruption.

He said: “We want to make sure that companies and organisations who are in a good state, not those who were going to fail anyway, are able to continue. We’ll be looking at all these measures, and I’ll be discussing them with the chancellor and the prime minister.”

Speaking later on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Shapps said he would also hold discussions with train companies, saying there had been a drop-off in rail travel of up to 20% over the past week. Train firms could be freed of obligations under their franchises to run certain services if these were empty, he said.

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