Public Health England (PHE) has announced a list of the most ‘at risk’ groups of people, naming those with weaker immune systems and long-term respiratory illnesses as the most under threat.
Among those who are at highest risk of contracting the infection are people aged 70 and over, regardless of whether they have any pre-existing health conditions.
When will elderly people have to reduce social contact?
On Tuesday 17 March, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that anyone aged 70 and over must self-isolate at home from this weekend (21 March) for up to four months to prevent them from contracting the virus.
The news comes as the death toll in the UK reached 71, with the total number of confirmed cases now at 1,950 - a rise of 407 in 24 hours.
In a briefing on Tuesday (17 Mar), Boris Johnson said: “In a few days’ time - by this coming weekend - it will be necessary to go further and to ensure that those with the most serious health conditions are largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks.
“This avoiding all social contact is especially important for the over 70, pregnant women and those with health conditions.
“It is now clear that the peak of the epidemic is coming faster in some parts of the country than others.
“People over 70 might feel there is something excessive about these measures. I believe they are overwhelmingly worth it to slow the spread of the disease, reduce the peak, save life, minimise suffering and give our NHS the chance to cope.”
What about the elderly in Scotland?
The Scottish government is not planning to isolate those aged 70 and over due to coronavirus fears, the Scottish Health Secretary has said.
Jane Freeman, Health Secretary in Scotland, said the government would instead be asking the elderly to reduce social contact.
While the plan to force over-70s to stay at home for up to four months was described as a “very big ask” by UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock, the measure is intended for their own “self-protection”.
However, Scotland has opted to take a less stringent approach and is recommending the elderly reduce their social contact instead, as they are one of the most vulnerable groups at risk of contracting the virus.
What measures should the over 70s take?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that self isolation is currently “the most effective way” of preventing the potentially deadly virus from spreading.
Those aged 70 and over are urged to remain in the home and avoid public areas, except if they need to receive medical care.
People are advised to ask for help if they require any shopping or medications, and should call ahead before visiting a doctor.
It is also advised that those who are self isolating should separate themselves from others in their home if possible, and stay in a well-ventilated room with a window to the outside that can be opened.
The elderly are more at risk of coronavirus due to having a weaker immune system, meaning their bodies are less able to fight the virus off.
Coronavirus: the facts
What is coronavirus?
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that can affect lungs and airways. It is caused by a virus called coronavirus.
What caused coronavirus?
The outbreak started in Wuhan in China in December 2019 and it is thought that the virus, like others of its kind, has come from animals.
How is it spread?
As this is such a new illness, experts still aren’t sure how it is spread. But similar viruses are spread in cough droplets. Therefore covering your nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing, and disposing of used tissues straight away is advised. Viruses like coronavirus cannot live outside the body for very long.
What are the symptoms?
The NHS states that the symptoms are: a dry cough, high temperature and shortness of breath - but these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have the illness. Look out for flu-like symptoms, such as aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose and a sore throat. It’s important to remember that some people may become infected but won’t develop any symptoms or feel unwell.
What precautions can be taken?
Washing your hands with soap and water thoroughly. The NHS also advises to cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze; put used tissues in the bin immediately and try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell. Also avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth unless your hands are clean.
Should I avoid public places?
Most people who feel well can continue to go to work, school and public places and should only stay at home and self isolate if advised by a medical professional or the coronavirus service.
What should I do if I feel unwell?
Don’t go to your GP but instead call NHS 111 or look online at the coronavirus service that can tell you if you need medical help and what to do next.
When to call NHS 111
NHS 111 should be used if you feel unwell with coronavirus symptoms, have been in a country with a high risk of coronavirus in the last 14 days or if you have been in close contact with someone with the virus.
Sources: World Health Organisation and NHS