Health secretary says coronavirus peak remarks 'over interpreted'


The health secretary urgently sought to play down his suggestion that the peak number of deaths caused by coronavirus could fall as early as Easter Sunday – claiming his remarks had been “over-interpreted”.

Matt Hancock began his media appearances on Friday by saying it was “perfectly possible” the peak of the disease could arrive in nine days’ time.

His comment led to confusion hours later at the daily Downing Street press conference as the government’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, asked when the epidemic was expected to peak, said: “We don’t know the answer to that yet.”

Symptoms are defined by the NHS as either:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new continuous cough – this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly

NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days.

If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

After 14 days, anyone you live with who does not have symptoms can return to their normal routine. But, if anyone in your home gets symptoms, they should stay at home for 7 days from the day their symptoms start. Even if it means they’re at home for longer than 14 days.

If you live with someone who is 70 or over, has a long-term condition, is pregnant or has a weakened immune system, try to find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days.

If you have to stay at home together, try to keep away from each other as much as possible.

After 7 days, if you no longer have a high temperature you can return to your normal routine.

If you still have a high temperature, stay at home until your temperature returns to normal.

If you still have a cough after 7 days, but your temperature is normal, you do not need to continue staying at home. A cough can last for several weeks after the infection has gone.

Staying at home means you should:

  • not go to work, school or public areas
  • not use public transport or taxis
  • not have visitors, such as friends and family, in your home
  • not go out to buy food or collect medicine – order them by phone or online, or ask someone else to drop them off at your home

You can use your garden, if you have one. You can also leave the house to exercise – but stay at least 2 metres away from other people.

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, use the NHS 111 coronavirus service to find out what to do.

Source: NHS England on 23 March 2020

Van-Tam said it was “too soon to say” when the peak would hit, appearing to contradict the health secretary.

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“It will partly depend upon how well those social distancing measures are adhered to by every one of us,” he said.

“I hope it will be soon. We’re going to watch very carefully to see when we’ve hit the peak and when we’re starting to turn it, but we will not take any premature actions.”

Easter Sunday falls on 12 April this year, and Hancock had earlier said he would not steer people away from anticipating that date as the peak in the number of fatalities in the UK, though there was still uncertainty around it.

He clarified his remarks during the Downing Street press conference on Friday evening after being asked again by Sky News when he thought the peak would fall.

“The truth is that we don’t know,” he said.

He claimed his remarks had been over-interpreted and he had been clear that the government could not give a definitive answer in his earlier interviews.

He said: “Actually, there’s a reason we don’t know, and that’s because it depends on how people act, and this is why the absolute central message, the most important message that anybody can take away from this press conference or the entirety of the government’s messaging and how we feel, is that you’ve got to stay at home.”

What is Covid-19?

It is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared it a pandemic.

What are the symptoms this coronavirus causes?

According to the WHO, the most common symptoms of Covid-19 are fever, tiredness and a dry cough. Some patients may also have a runny nose, sore throat, nasal congestion and aches and pains or diarrhoea. Some people report losing their sense of taste and/or smell. About 80% of people who get Covid-19 experience a mild case – about as serious as a regular cold – and recover without needing any special treatment.

About one in six people, the WHO says, become seriously ill. The elderly and people with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, or chronic respiratory conditions, are at a greater risk of serious illness from Covid-19.

In the UK, the National health Service (NHS) has identified the specific symptoms to look for as experiencing either:

  • a high temperature – you feel hot to touch on your chest or back
  • a new continuous cough – this means you’ve started coughing repeatedly

As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work, and there is currently no vaccine. Recovery depends on the strength of the immune system.

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Medical advice varies around the world – with many countries imposing travel bans and lockdowns to try and prevent the spread of the virus. In many place people are being told to stay at home rather than visit a doctor of hospital in person. Check with your local authorities.

In the UK, NHS advice is that anyone with symptoms should stay at home for at least 7 days. If you live with other people, they should stay at home for at least 14 days, to avoid spreading the infection outside the home.

How many people have been affected?

China’s national health commission confirmed human-to-human transmission in January. As of 31 March, more than one million people have been infected in more than 170 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

There have been over 50,000 deaths globally. Just over 3,200 of those deaths have occurred in mainland China. Italy has been worst affected, with over 13,900 fatalities, and there have been over 10,000 deaths in Spain. The US now has more confirmed cases than any other country – more than 245,000. Many of those who have died had underlying health conditions, which the coronavirus complicated.

More than 210,000 people are recorded as having recovered from the coronavirus.

The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said Hancock’s 12 April suggestion did not feel accurate considering the evidence she had assessed.

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She said: “I want to be very clear that nothing I have seen gives me any basis whatsoever for predicting the virus will peak as early as a week’s time here in Scotland.”

Her chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, stressed: “I have not been able to find that the peak will be as soon as we’re hearing in the media today. Now is not the time to think that perhaps it will all be over soon.”

Several government ministers have come under fire for giving mixed messages to the public, including transport secretary Grant Shapps, who incorrectly said people should only go shopping for food once a week, which was later corrected by No 10.

Michael Gove also stepped in to explain that daily exercise should be a walk or run close to home after people had interpreted the government’s rule as allowing them to travel further afield.

The prime minister has also been criticised for talking about plans for up to 250,000 tests a day. The health secretary confirmed the immediate aim was 100,000 tests a day by the end of April.



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