The director of public health for Leeds answers your questions about coronavirus

Leeds City Council's director of public health has only been in the job a few weeks - but faces a challenge that few could have predicted.

Leeds General Infirmary

Victoria Eaton was appointed after the retirement of her predecessor Dr Ian Cameron, who had held the role since 2006, at the end of February.

She has worked in leadership roles in Leeds over the last 22 years and has a track record of managing a wide range of public health challenges across the city.

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Victoria agreed to answer several key questions about Leeds' response to the coronavirus outbreak, and has addressed public concerns over infection control and containment.

How many cases have there been in Leeds so far and are they connected to each other? Has contact tracing of their friends and relatives taken place?

We now have seven confirmed cases in Leeds. The UK is extremely well-prepared for these types of outbreaks and, here in Leeds, we have well-developed plans to help people and strong partnerships working within the health system to prevent the spread, while ensuring we can continue to run public services effectively.

There’s currently no evidence to suggest the cases are related.

Contact tracing was undertaken by Public Health England in line with national policy during the ‘containment’ phase, and appropriate advice given to those contacts. This tried and tested method ensures we can minimise any risk to them and the wider public.

To protect patient confidentiality, we cannot comment on where individual cases are being treated.

Why can't you release more specific information about where each victim is from and the places they might have visited?

Whilst we recognise the need to keep the public informed, and give them the necessary information for them to protect themselves, we must always balance this with the need for patient confidentiality.

What measures should you take to protect yourself against infection?

The UK has well-established plans to deal with outbreaks of infectious disease and everyone can play an important role in making these plans work, slowing down the spread of coronavirus.

One of the ways we become infected, or pass on viruses to others, is through the droplets in coughs and sneezes - for instance through someone who has a virus coughing onto their hand, then touching a door handle.

A simple and effective way to protect yourself from coronavirus is by making sure you wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or a hand sanitiser if you are out and about. It’s particularly important to wash your hands once you get home or arrive at work or before you prepare or eat food.

If you’re unwell, it’s vital that you catch your coughs and sneezes in a tissue, or use your arm if needed. Throw the tissues away, then wash your hands.

We’re actively promoting the Public Health England’s 'catch it, bin it, kill it' message through a wide range of our communication channels.

In his statement yesterday regarding the move from the ‘containment’ to the ‘delay’ phase, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that anyone with coronavirus symptoms, however mild - either a new continuous cough or a high temperature - should stay at home for at least seven days to protect themselves and others and help slow the spread of the disease.

Looking ahead, people should consider what preparations they could put in place to help them self-isolate if they need to.

For example, have you got friends or neighbours who could bring food to your house or run errands, or could they do online shopping? Could you talk to your employers about opportunities to work from home if this became necessary? If you might be more vulnerable to severe symptoms of coronavirus, you should consider your planned activities over the coming weeks - listing which are essential and which you could cancel if you needed to.

Finally, since COVID-19 began to quickly spread quickly, it’s become a major global news story. With this level of media and public interest, it’s inevitable that myths, misinformation and rumours will be shared online. To best protect them you should only rely on information and advice shared by trusted government sources including the Department for Health & Social Care (DHSC), Public Health England (PHE) and NHS England (NHSE).

And what measures are unlikely to help?

There’s very little evidence of widespread benefits from the use of face masks outside of clinical settings. To be effective, face masks must be worn correctly, changed frequently, removed properly and disposed of safely.

As stated above, a simple and effective way to protect yourself from coronavirus is by making sure you wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or a hand sanitiser if you are out and about. It’s particularly important to wash your hands once you get home or arrive at work or before you prepare or eat food.

I can't find handwash for sale anywhere - what should I do? Which products are the most effective and which aren't antiviral?

We know that viruses are transferred to and by people’s hands. Therefore, regular hand hygiene and cleaning of frequently-touched surfaces will help to reduce the risk of infection. Washing hands thoroughly with hot water and soap should always be the first choice - hand sanitiser can be used if handwashing is unavailable.

As you touch people, surfaces and objects throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands. You can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose or mouth, or spread them to others. Although it's impossible to keep your hands germ-free, washing your hands frequently can help limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes.

It's generally best to wash your hands with soap and water. Over-the-counter antibacterial soaps are no more effective at killing germs than regular soap. Alcohol-based hand sanitisers, which don't require water, are an acceptable alternative when soap and water aren't available. If you use a hand sanitizer, make sure the product contains at least 60 per cent alcohol.

Who is most at risk from the virus? Which groups are you especially worried about?

The coronavirus disease is particularly dangerous for the elderly and people with pre-existing underlying health conditions.

Whilst for the majority, coronavirus will be a mild to moderate illness, there are many people who are very worried. To ease this anxiety, we should all think about our elderly relatives, the more vulnerable members of our family and our neighbours and do whatever we can to protect them best over the next few months.

Does Leeds have contingency plans in place for public health emergencies of this scale? What do they involve? Would less acute cases be discharged from hospitals to make way for coronavirus victims? Would isolation wards be set up?

Leeds has robust infection control arrangements in place and strong partnership arrangements across the health and care system. As such, the risk to people living, working, studying and visiting Leeds remains low and the city is very much open for business.

Testing of suspected coronavirus cases is carried out in line with strict regulations. This means that suspected cases are kept in isolation, away from public areas of the hospital and returned home also in isolation. Any equipment that comes into contact with suspected cases is thoroughly cleaned as appropriate. Specific guidance has also been shared with NHS staff to help safeguard them and others.

Leeds City Council has been working closely with all its partners in responding to Covid-19 since the outbreak began. All of our work is in line with national guidance.

The council is also working with partners to build on city-wide and council service response plans and these plans are being updated in line with new information as it becomes available.

This planning places us in the best possible position given the resources and information available to respond and mitigate any relevant risks to council services and to provide what support we can to individuals, families, communities and businesses affected.

While we will do everything we can to mitigate the impact on services, we are asking that people are understanding of the pressures that health and social care systems, and other council services, may be under, now and in the future, and receptive to any changes that may be needed.

We are also working with managers and unions to ensure all our staff are aware of, and are able to follow advice from the NHS and Public Health England and that they take all the necessary precautions to avoid spreading the virus. This includes following the latest travel and health advice. We are preparing to keep services operating, wherever possible, in the event of government advice which encourages staff to work at home.

We are confident that we can adapt our services to respond if the level of risk changes in the way that the government forecasts, accepting that we may need to prioritise and work in different ways to deliver critical services.

As someone who has been in the job only a few weeks, do you feel your team are adequately prepared and briefed for this situation?

We have a Cross Council Coronavirus Working Group meeting weekly, with each directorate represented. This helps ensure we deal with all the issues and have consistent communications. This is to complement the extensive arrangements within the health and social care sector and with the local resilience forum.

Are there any other public health concerns to take into account during an epidemic?

We know that staying at home for a prolonged period of time can be difficult, frustrating and lonely for some people and that you may feel low. It’s important to remember to take care of your mind as well as your body and to get support if and when you need it. Stay in touch with family and friends over the phone or on social media.