The government has been accused of withholding information about the spread of coronavirus after a 70% increase in confirmed cases prompted health officials to stop providing daily updates on the location of new infections.
As Downing Street confirmed that discussions are taking place on contingency plans to close the Houses of Parliament if the outbreak becomes widespread, 36 new UK cases were announced on Wednesday.
Three of the cases are believed to have been contracted within the UK, confirming fears that community transmission is already occurring and that attempts to contain the virus have at least partly failed. In total, 87 people have tested positive in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Health officials faced a backlash over a decision not to release information about where new cases are until a weekly roundup announced each Friday.
It said the move was a response to the sheer number of new cases. But a former director at the agency urged it to reconsider to allow the public to make informed choices. It came as:
The prime minister announced that statutory sick pay will be paid from the first day off work, not the fourth, to encourage people to self isolate.
Public Health England (PHE) said that people may be asked not to shake hands should the outbreak worsen.
The release of the James Bond film, No Time to Die, was pushed back seven months to November.
Prof Paul Ashford, former north-west regional director of PHE, criticised the decision not to disclose the locations of new coronavirus cases.
“They should be sharing the data as much as possible, to make the public equal partners in tackling this and help them make decisions about their own lives. The public needs to know if it’s in their area on a daily basis,” he said. “The planning documents talk a lot about openness, transparency and public involvement. But that hasn’t applied to what’s been going on for the last three weeks.”
Dr Jennifer Cole, biological anthropologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, who carried out research into information exchange during the Ebola crisis, said the move risked the spread of fake news.
She said: “I think it’s an incredibly ill-advised decision. If it’s not released officially, it creates an information vacuum and it will be filled by unreliable sources … Containment is going to be down to public behaviour and the public response. To not take into account what the public want leaves the government and NHS open to accusations of not being transparent.”
Other countries have been more open about the spread of the virus. Singapore identifies the street where cases are confirmed. And in South Korea, phone alerts signify when users come within 100 metres of a confirmed case, based on government data.
In the UK, some local authorities confirmed the location of the latest new cases.
The chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, said it was unclear whether the three new person-to-person infections were direct or indirect from someone who has recently travelled from abroad.
It is known that many had travelled from Italy. Two were diagnosed in Greater Manchester, two in South Ribble, Lancashire, one in Liverpool, and two in Carlisle – including a member of healthcare staff at the Cumberland Infirmary.
King’s College London confirmed to the Guardian that an immunobiology student working in an asthma and allergy research department at Guy’s Hospital in London has tested positive. Several other staff have been advised by NHS England to self-isolate.
A university spokesperson said the risk of other staff and students having been exposed to the infection had been deemed low but did not confirm whether the department – within the Southwark hospital – dealt directly with patients.
Goldsmiths, University of London said a guest visiting one of its halls of residence had tested positive for the virus. It said the visitor is self-isolating as a precaution.
And Lyndhurst primary school in south London said it may have to close on Thursday after one of the pupils’ parents tested positive.
The Scottish government confirmed two new cases, one in the Grampian area and one in Ayrshire. Two new cases were also announced in Northern Ireland.
Whitty said the UK had probably passed the phase of trying to contain the disease, and was now trying to delay it until the summer. “We think it is likely, not definite, that we will move into onward transmission and an epidemic here in the UK,” he said.
The NASUWT, one of the largest teaching unions in the UK, urged the government to address a surge in incidents of racism and xenophobia in schools linked to coronavirus. The union said it has received increased reports of black and minority ethnic teachers and pupils being subjected to “racist name-calling and intimidation” connected to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Meanwhile, the London Book Fair, one of the world’s largest book trade events, was called off and the organisers of the Cheltenham festival, which is due to begin next week, said numbers are expected to be down because of coronavirus fears.