Patients with suspected coronavirus will be tested in their own homes in a bid to contain the outbreak.
They will be ordered to stay indoors and wait for a paramedic or nurse rather than risk infecting dozens of people at hospital or on their way there.
In a further sign that the NHS is preparing for a pandemic, more staff are being recruited to the 111 helpline, which is the first port of call for suspected victims. Officials fear a sudden surge in cases in the UK because the virus is now spreading faster outside China, the country it started in.
A public awareness campaign will be launched next week urging Britons to regularly wash their hands for 20 seconds. Messages will go out on social media and radio stations encouraging handwashing on arrival at work, after using public transport and before food.
Worker in a medical mask cleaning inside Ritchie Street Health Centre in Islington which had previously closed due to the Coronavirus
Coronavirus assessment pods at Chesterfield Royal Hospital, in Chesterfield, Derbyshire
Mystery surrounds a coronavirus isolation pod hidden behind bins at Lincoln County Hospital
Health Secretary Matt Hancock chaired a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee to discuss the crisis
As fear of the virus spread, dozens of schools sent pupils home because of possible exposure and 300 oil firm staff were evacuated from their London HQ.
A string of countries confirmed their first cases of the disease and the number of cases in badly-affected Italy surged to 400.
A school attended by Prince George and Princess Charlotte was among dozens to close or send pupils home over fears they had been exposed the virus on trips abroad.
A new public awareness campaign will be launched next week urging Britons to wash their hands more
Since cases of the COVID-19 illness soared in Italy over the weekend they have spread around Europe, with mainland Spain, Switzerland, Austria and Croatia today all declaring their first infected patients
In other developments:
British Airways cancelled dozens of flights to Milan due to a drop in demand from worried British tourists; Parents revealed they were stockpiling nappies, soup and tinned fruit in case shops were forced to close; The Government told workers they were entitled to take two weeks of paid sick leave if they needed to self-isolate; Ireland’s men’s and women’s Six Nations games against Italy in Dublin were postponed; British holidaymakers pleaded with Boris Johnson to ‘come rescue us’ after being trapped in a Tenerife hotel; Health Secretary Matt Hancock chaired a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee to discuss the crisis.
Number of new coronavirus cases reported outside of China EXCEEDS those in the country for the first time, the WHO says
More coronavirus cases are now being reported each day outside China than inside the hardest-hit nation, the World Health Organization has said.
Just 411 patients were struck down yesterday in China, where 96 per cent of COVID-19 cases have been recorded since the crisis began in December.
But data obtained by the UN-agency show 427 cases were recorded outside China, amid a worrying spike in Italy, South Korea and Iran.
The WHO’s director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom admitted the sudden jump in cases was ‘deeply concerning’ as fears of a pandemic continue to grow.
The number of new daily cases in China has dropped dramatically since the beginning of February, and there are now more new infections elsewhere in the world
The NHS has been trialling a home-testing coronavirus service in parts of London but it is expected to be rolled out across England very shortly.
Patients with suspicious symptoms – a cough, shortness or breath or a temperature – will be able to call NHS 111 which will arrange for a district nurse or paramedic to visit and take a swab.
This will avoid them coming into contact with dozens of other healthcare workers or vulnerable patients in waiting rooms, lifts, buses or taxis.
The NHS is hiring extra staff for its 111 helpline which is already dealing with a much higher volume of calls. An NHS England spokesman said the service was ‘understandably busy’ and acknowledged that some ‘may have to wait longer than usual’ as a result.
The underlying message of next week’s public awareness campaign will be ‘protect yourself and protect others’.
Tests for coronavirus are being extended to include patients displaying flu-like symptoms at 100 GP surgeries and eight hospitals to provide an ‘early warning’ of spread.
Mr Hancock told the Commons yesterday that the Government was ‘taking all necessary measures to minimise the risk to the public’.
He said: ‘We have a clear four-part plan to respond to the outbreak of this disease: contain, delay, research and mitigate. We are also planning to introduce home testing, some of which has started already.
More than 81,000 cases of the COVID-19 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – have been recorded across the world, with the death toll nearing 2,800
‘Home testing is the safest place to be tested because people do not have to go anywhere, and that will allow us to roll out testing to a larger number of people.’
The Health Secretary said the Government would be ‘strengthening’ the public health messages about the virus, adding: ‘In particular, we want to persuade people to wash their hands more and to look out for themselves, especially if they have a sneeze, in order to slow the spread; we want to explain what they should to do if they think they are infected. It is incredibly important that we get this information out across the whole population.’
Mr Hancock however cautioned the nation not to overreact over the possible scale of the outbreak.
Yesterday’s official figures showed that 427 cases were reported by countries outside of China compared to just 411 within China, where the outbreak began two months ago.
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation, said the spike in infections in Italy, South Korea and Iran was deeply concerning.
He said: ‘We are not just fighting to contain a virus and save lives. We are also in a fight to contain the social and economic damage a global pandemic could do.’