The health secretary has insisted the government will do “everything in its power” to delay and mitigate the coronavirus threat, as GPs have warned hospitals will have to cut back on work not related to coronavirus in order to tackle an outbreak.

Matt Hancock said ministers would do “all we can” to contain the Covid-19 outbreak as he set out plans contained in emergency legislation to deal with the impact of the virus.

The bill, which is likely to go through parliament by the end of the month, is expected to include measures to allow some court proceedings to be conducted via telephone or video.

Hancock said: “We will do all we can to contain coronavirus, but, as we know, Covid-19 is spreading across the world, so I want to ensure covernment is doing everything in its power to be ready to delay and mitigate this threat.

“Public safety is my top priority. Responding to coronavirus is a massive national effort and I’m working with colleagues across government to ensure we have a proportionate emergency bill, with the right measures to deal with the impacts of a widespread Covid-19 outbreak.

“We plan for the worst and work for the best, and the NHS is working 24/7 to fight this virus.”

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided it is used correctly.

Justin McCurry

The comments came as 32 people who had been aboard a cruise ship in Japan were release from quarantine in the Wirral, and two people who had recently returned to Wales from Italy tested positive for the illness.

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, warned that the Covid-19 outbreak is a “significant crisis” for the health service but said that estimates 100,000 could die are a “worst-case scenario”.

“If we are going to try and continue doing what we are doing at the health service and tackle coronavirus, it will require a significant amount of resources,” he told Sky’s Sophie Ridge on Sunday. “I expect we will cut down in terms of the other work we do.”

Marshall welcomed plans to call upon recently retired doctors to expand the workforce.

He said: “I think it is a good idea as long as we do it carefully, and people are estimating that 20% of the workforce might be out of action at any one time when the crisis reaches its peak – people are talking about some time in late April for that.

“If that happens then we do need to expand the workforce in whatever way we can.”

He added that the doctors would likely not do face-to-face contact but as they are in the “higher risk patient group” but could manage 111 calls and providing online or telephone-based care.

World Health Organisation representative Dr Margaret Harris warned that government must ensure that supporting health workers is their “number one priority”.

“They need all the protective equipment, they also need training, they also need access, to know how to do the swab, when to do the swab, where the testing comes from,” she said.

“And they need back-up, they need other people to come and do the shifts. If they’re working massively, they are tremendously at risk.”

Asked if army field hospitals could play a role in the response to the coronavirus outbreak, Dr Harris said: “Certainly the army has great experience of putting up field hospitals, I’ve worked in Ebola and I’ve seen what the British army can do. It’s quite incredible.

“So this is the sort of planning you should be thinking about. Can you set up a field hospital, where do you set it up? What equipment have you got and what staff have you got and how can you protect everybody working in those conditions?”

On Sunday, NHS England announced that 32 people have been given an all clear for coronavirus after being held in isolation in the Wirral after returning from the Diamond Princess cruise liner in Japan. The group – made up of 30 Britons and two Irish people – had been held in quarantine since last month after the ship became a breeding ground for the virus.

Seven people, including one UK citizen, who had been aboard the ship have died so far.

Two further patients in Wales also tested positive for coronavirus after recently returning from northern Italy.

Dr Frank Atherton, the chief medical officer for Wales, said: “I can confirm that two additional individuals in Wales have tested positive for coronavirus (Covid-19), bringing the total number of positive cases in Wales to four.

“Both individuals are resident in the same household in the Pembrokeshire local authority area and have recently returned from northern Italy.”

On Saturday evening, Oxford university vice-chancellor Louise Richardson told staff that a student has tested positive for the virus but ruled out closing any university facilities or accommodation.

“I am writing to let you know that Public Health England (PHE) has confirmed that one of our students has tested positive for coronavirus (Covid-19) after returning from travel overseas,” Richardson said.

“I am constrained in what I can say at the moment but I am glad to report that the student self-isolated as soon as they developed symptoms and did not attend any university or college events after they fell ill.

As a result, PHE has advised that the risk to other students and staff is very low and that university and college activities can continue.”

Richardson said PHE advised the university not to take “any additional public health actions” as a result of the student’s positive test.

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