The coronavirus outbreak could lead to a fifth of workers in the UK staying at home, cause the police to drop low-priority cases and force the National Health Service (NHS) to delay non-urgent care.
That is according to a 27-page document published by the government today, which sets out the UK-wide response to the covid-19 virus, amid widespread concerns about the impact it will have on people’s well-being, the economy and public services.
Measures aimed at delaying the spread of the virus could include school closures, reducing the number of large-scale gatherings and encouraging people to work from home.
The government’s response is in four areas: containing the outbreak, delaying its spread and mitigating the impact of the disease once it becomes established. Alongside that, a research programme is aimed at improving diagnostics and treatment for the disease.
Amid warnings about the impact on the global economy, the document acknowledges the potential impact on businesses. “In a stretching scenario, it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks,” it says.
The government’s response is currently in the containment phase, along with research being carried out and planning for the delay and mitigation work.
Officials hope to delay the peak of the virus until the warmer spring and summer months when health services are less busy.
If the disease becomes established, mitigation measures will be introduced. These could include police concentrating on serious crimes and maintaining public order if faced with a significant loss of officers and staff, and the NHS delaying non-urgent care and calling retired staff back to duty.
Local authorities may have to deal with “an increase in deaths”, particularly among vulnerable and older people, and the government is also considering how to distribute the UK’s stockpiles of key medicines and equipment such as protective clothing.
In a sign that the military could be called in to help with the efforts, the document says there are “well-practised arrangements for defence to provide support to civil authorities if requested”.
The number of people in the UK who have tested positive for the virus stands at 39.