Coronavirus confusion as NHS helpline gives out wrong adviceMegan Orito
Coronavirus confusion as NHS helpline gives out wrong advice.
Travellers returning to the UK from Italy told no need to isolate as sixth death announced.
The government has reserved the Holiday Inn hotel near Heathrow for people arriving from abroad to self-isolate, but travellers appeared to be free to go home via public transport. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA.
Downing Street has admitted the NHS 111 online service has been giving out the wrong advice on coronavirus to travellers returning from Italy, as the number of confirmed cases in the UK rose to 373 and a sixth death was announced.
Returning travellers from the European centre of the outbreak in Italy were still being told all day on Tuesday there was no need to self-isolate if they had no symptoms.
This is despite advice from Public Health England released on Monday night advising all people coming from Italy, which is in lockdown, to stay at home for 14 days regardless of whether they feel unwell.
Confused travellers expressed their concerns about the conflicting advice on social media but NHS 111 still had not updated the portal at 5 pm on Tuesday – hours after it was first informed of the problem.
A No 10 spokesman defended the government’s handling of its advice to citizens, saying: “They are aware of the problem and that information is being urgently updated. Obviously, we have been setting out very clearly in public what the advice is in relation to Italy. But I am aware of the issue and it is being urgently resolved.”
An NHS 111 spokesperson said: “NHS Digital update the 111 algorithms once they are notified by the government, and as soon as each update has been tested prior to release.”
Elisabeth Braw, a resilience expert at the Royal United Services (RUSI) thinktank, said: “It’s really in everybody’s interests that all of the government channels for information says the same thing. Otherwise, there may be confusion.
“But really there a fundamental problem in that the UK has not focused on preparedness among the public. The government may consider itself to be prepared but it’s not the case that the public is. Otherwise, you end up with frantic last-minute efforts and the public are stockpiling toilet paper and other resources.”
A sizeable proportion of the UK’s 382 coronavirus cases have originated in Italy, with thousands of people returning from holidays in the country in recent weeks.
Ryanair has followed British Airways and other airlines in reducing the number of flights to and from the country.
The government said those arriving at Heathrow from Italy who were not easily able to self-isolate were being asked if they wanted to enter quarantine at a large hotel near the airport.
The venue is understood to be a Holiday Inn that has been used for some people arriving from China and South Korea in recent weeks. No 10 said some people thought to be at particular risk were being offered transport to their homes.
However, people returning from Italy were not given information on self-isolation as they landed and were largely free to travel home via public transport if they wished, even though they were supposed to self-isolate for 14 days even if they did not have symptoms.
It is not known whether they were being offered face masks for the journey and it was also unclear what the procedures were for people returning via other airports.
European states have been announcing increasingly strict measures to try to stem the spread of the virus. Austria announced a ban on Italians entering the country unless they were carrying a medical certificate, while Spain has said it is preparing for school closures from Wednesday.
As of 9 am on Tuesday, 373 people in the UK had been confirmed to have Covid-19, up from 319 the day before. It was the second biggest day-on-day rise, matching Monday’s 17% increase.
The sixth death happened on Monday night at Watford General hospital, part of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS trust. The patient was in their 80s and had underlying health conditions.
On Tuesday, MPs were told the government could suspend various elements of bureaucracy for GPs to allow them to focus more immediately on treating patients.
In other developments on Tuesday:
- The Foreign Office confirmed it was in contact with Britons in Vietnam after reports of nine new cases confirmed among travellers onboard a flight from London to Hanoi on 2 March, including seven British citizens. It said US authorities were planning a flight on Tuesday to repatriate British nationals on the Grand Princess cruise ship at the Port of Oakland, California.
- The Queen did not shake people’s hands at a Buckingham Palace reception – unlike last week when she greeted people and shook hands while wearing gloves.
- Updated guidance for pregnancy advised expectant mothers suspected or confirmed to have coronavirus to attend an obstetric unit for birth.
- Government figures revealed new and increased numbers of coronavirus cases in 23 council areas of England, according to an analysis by the Guardian’s data team. The figures, released daily with a 24-hour delay to allow for verification, show eight areas where the virus has been detected for the first time.
Earlier on Tuesday, the deputy chief medical officer for England defended the government’s strategy of holding off on cancelling major outdoor events such as football matches and closing schools.
Speaking as tens of thousands of people attended the opening day of the Cheltenham festival, Dr Jenny Harries said the argument for cancelling major events was not necessarily supported by science, adding: “The virus will not survive very long outside.”
New measures including those aimed at protecting older or vulnerable people are expected to be put into action soon, possibly after a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee on Wednesday.
Boris Johnson discussed the situation with England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, on Tuesday morning, while experts from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) convened to analyse the latest figures on spread.
Among those calling for a change of tactics soon was Dr Peter Drobac, an expert in infectious diseases at Oxford University, who told the BBC he believed it was time to seriously consider some of the social distancing adopted by other countries, including closing schools.
“The evidence we have suggests that social distancing works best before the surge in cases rather than after,” said Drobac, adding that with hindsight it appeared Italy had waited too long before implementing such measures.
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