Boris Johnson reveals he is still shaking hands as he sets out Government's response to coronavirus

The Government has warned that “widespread exposure” to the coronavirus in the UK may be “inevitable” as it published plans which could see police detain those who may be infected and retired doctors dragged back into the health service.

A battle plan to tackle the illness, which it is warned may come in phases, was published this morning and referred to worst case scenarios, with an aim of delaying the worst of the outbreak until the summer when it can be addressed for effectively.

The plan was released as the Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a press conference on the illness at Downing Street.

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Mr Johnson said it is "highly likely" the number of coronavirus cases in the UK will rise.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a press conference, at 10 Downing Street, in London, on the government's Coronavirus action plan. Photo: Frank Augstein/PA Wire

The Prime Minister outlined the Government's plan to "contain, delay, research, mitigate".

And he said: "Let me be absolutely clear that for the overwhelming majority of people who contract the virus this will be a mild disease from which they will speedily and fully recover as we have already seen.

"But I fully understand public concern, your concern, about the global spread of the virus and it is highly likely that we will see a growing number of UK cases and that's why keeping the country safe is the Government's overriding priority, and our plan means we are committed to doing everything possible, based on the advice of our world-leading scientific experts, to prepare for all eventualities."

Mr Johnson told reporters he continues to shake hands with people.

He said: "I am shaking hands, I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were coronavirus patients and I was shaking hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.

"People must make up their own minds but I think the scientific evidence is... our judgment is that washing your hands is the crucial thing."

But in an indication of how seriously authorities are taking the outbreak, measures being considered include closing down schools, police forces concentrating on only the most serious crimes, and pulling retired healthcare professionals back into service.

Police and medical professionals will be able to detain those at risk or suspected of having the virus and force them into quarantine.

And flights arriving into the UK will have to declare, an hour before landing, that all passengers on board are well.

The Government would also give support to local authorities, which is understood to mean helping to manage mortuaries if the number of deaths rose.

And while these measures could be in place for 12 weeks to be of any benefit, the challenge is in ensuring they are not put in place too early to prevent people becoming bored and prevention methods not being effective at the peak of an outbreak.

It is not yet known whether coronavirus will come in one shot, as the plan warns “COVID-19 could occur in multiple waves”.

But health officials will be looking at delaying tactics to try and push the peak of the outbreak into the summer months, when respiratory diseases are less of an issue and pressure on the NHS is at its lowest.

This is based on swine flu in 2009 where the school summer holidays drastically slowed down the transmission of the illness.

In the document, it was set out how stockpiles of medicines could be relied upon, while if the police service suffered a “significant loss of officers and staff” due to an escalating outbreak, “the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order”.

In the health service, non-urgent procedures could be delayed, and “staff rostering changes may be necessary, including calling leavers and retirees back to duty”.

Some £20m has already been handed over by the Government in an attempt for researchers to develop a vaccine.

Legislation allowing the Government to use extra powers to help control Covid-19 is expected to go through Parliament by the end of the month.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said this morning that the number of home ventilation kits is being expanded.

On whether the NHS would be able to cope if the virus reaches pandemic level, he told ITV's Good Morning Britain: "A lot of people, not least because it is mild, will be best off at home than in hospital, so we are expanding the number of home ventilation kits that are available so that can be done.

"The NHS, of course, has a full plan for this and prepares for this even when there isn't an outbreak."

Mr Hancock also told BBC Breakfast that the action plan would set out measures to deal with the virus now, to delay the spread, and, if it becomes a pandemic, actions that "we might have to take to mitigate it".

He added: "It's quite unusual for a Government to publish a plan with things in it we hope we won't have to do."

Asked about the cancellation of mass gatherings such as the London Marathon at the end of April, Mr Hancock said: "It's far too early to be able to tell in that instance.

"What we can say for sure is that, right now, we do not recommend the cancelling of mass events, and schools as well should not be closing unless there is both a positive case and the school has had the advice to close from Public Health England.

"So, right now, as long as you wash your hands more often that is the number one thing you can do to keep you and the country safe.

"And capture a sneeze or a cough if you have one and then follow the public health advice if you've travelled from one of the affected areas.

"Right now, that is what people should be doing and otherwise going about their normal daily life because we want to minimise the level of disruption, subject to doing the things we need to do to keep people safe."

Mr Hancock said it is a "reality of this disease" that there are actions the "Government does not normally take and that we don't want to take, that may be necessary to keep people safe".

He said he understood why people may not want to shake hands, but added: "The scientific advice is that the impact of shaking hands is negligible and what really matters is that you wash your hands more often."

Following an emergency Cobra meeting on Monday, at which ministers discussed the "battle plan", Mr Johnson said coronavirus is "highly likely" to spread more widely.

While he has insisted the NHS is well prepared to deal with any outbreak, a doctors' group warned there are concerns that an already-stretched health service will not cope in the event of a huge increase in cases.

The Doctors' Association UK said just eight of 1,618 medics surveyed felt the NHS is ready for coronavirus.

Despite a forthcoming public health campaign, a YouGov poll suggested 54 per cent of people have not been taking any extra steps to protect themselves.

Health leaders have announced an extra £1.7m investment in the NHS non-emergency helpline to offer more clinical advice about coronavirus, and NHS England has put a new NHS 111 online service in place after a surge in inquiries.

With global markets hit by the spread of Covid-19, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to use his Budget next week to outline measures to support the economy, having ordered officials to work up plans to bolster the public health response, businesses and the economy.

All the new UK cases announced on Monday were people who had recently travelled to Italy, which is experiencing the biggest outbreak in Europe.

The number of people in the UK who have tested positive for the virus stands at 39.

Government said it could be "months rather than weeks" before the outbreak peaks in the UK.

In a suggestion that extra emergency powers would not be required immediately, the source said: "We don't want to have to take decisions before we have to. As much as possible we want people to carry on with their daily lives."

The European Commission said on Monday that the coronavirus risk level is "moderate to high" for those in the European Union and the UK.

The UK cases include a worker at the North East London NHS Foundation Trust offices at Vinters Business Park near Maidstone in Kent, a pupil from Churston Ferrers grammar school in Torbay, a teacher at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the parent of a pupil at a school in Stevenage.

British Airways said it has cancelled hundreds of flights in March, including from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City Airports.

Ryanair has also reduced flights on some routes, in particular to and from Italy, by up to 25 per cent due to a drop in demand.

Globally more than 90,000 cases of the disease have been confirmed, with more than 3,000 deaths.