The UK’s coronavirus death toll has jumped to 422 in the biggest daily rise yet, officials have announced as the crisis continues to spiral out of control.
Eighty-three more patients died overnight in England, including 21 at the one NHS trust in London. Scotland also announced two fatalities, while Wales confirmed another death.
In contrast, fifty-five infected Brits died the day before. The UK’s death toll has risen almost six-fold in the space of a week, with just 71 fatalities recorded last Tuesday.
Britain also saw a record spike in cases today, with more than 8,000 patients now known to have the infection. But the true toll is likely to be closer to the 400,000 mark, scientists say.
It comes as police officers were today forced to break up barbecues being held in different parts of the UK as Brits flouted new draconian powers to disperse crowds of more than two to halt the spread of coronavirus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock today launched a drive for a 250,000 strong ‘volunteer army’ to boost the NHS and stop it being swamped amid the coronavirus crisis.
He said he wanted helpers to come forward to bolster local services – as he also revealed that a new hospital, the NHS Nightingale, is being created at the Excel centre in London.
In other coronavirus developments:
- Builders across the UK have said they feel ‘angry and unprotected’ as they continued working on busy construction sites
- Britain was placed under new draconian measures which to keep people indoors, including allowing outside exercise only once a day, social gatherings of more than two people banned, and non-essential travel prohibited, with police handed powers to slap offenders with fines;
- Londoners continued to cram into packed Tube carriages during this morning’s rush-hour, with union chiefs calling on Sadiq Khan to get a grip of the capital’s public transport;
- The Mayor of London came under fire for blaming commuters for flouting advice over non essential travel;
- Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt demanded more NHS workers were tested for coronavirus, which has killed 335 and infected 6650 in the UK;
- Supermarket websites crashed and delivery slots were booked solid for weeks as lockdown begun;
- Sports Direct insisted it was providing an essential service and tried to open it stores, but was forced to U-turn under pressure from the government;
- The FTSE 100 opened up 4 per cent as investors seemingly took confidence in the PM’s measures.
People walk in the sunshine at Battersea Park in South West London today on the first day of the UK coronavirus shutdown
A packed London Underground Central line train this morning as commuters still use public transport today
Visitors to an outdoor gym exercise on Clapham Common in South West London this afternoon
A cramped Tube on the Central line this morning as people travelled into work on the Underground as early as 5am
Police disperse a group in Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester city centre today as officers enforce Boris Johnson’s new powers to stop groups of more than two people congregating
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said home is now the ‘front line’ in the fight against coronavirus, as he urged people to come together to reduce the number of people in the UK who will die from the spread of the infection.
But he issued a stark warning, saying stricter measures introduced by the Prime Minister on Monday were not advice but rules that must be followed.
He told MPs in the Commons: ‘The spread of coronavirus is rapidly accelerating across the world and in the UK.
‘The actions we took yesterday are not actions that any UK government would want to take but they are absolutely necessary. Our instruction is simple: stay at home.’
He said people should only be leaving their home for four reasons – shopping for essentials such as food and medicine, one form of exercise per day, medical need or to provide care to a vulnerable person, and travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home.
Mr Hancock said: ‘These measures are not advice, they are rules and will be enforced including by the police, with fines starting at £30 up to unlimited fines for non-compliance.’
He continued: ‘We are engaged in a great national effort to beat this virus, everybody now has it in their power to save lives and protect the NHS. Home is now the front line.
‘In this national effort, working together, we can defeat this disease, everyone has a part to play.’
His comments come as some trains on London’s Tube network were crowded again this morning despite Boris Johnson placing the UK on a lockdown.
A group of men set up for a barbecue this afternoon in West Hampstead, North West London, despite the new UK rules
West Midlands Police had to step in to disperse a large group of people having a barbecue in the Foleshill area of Coventry
Police disperse a group in Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester city centre today as officers enforce Boris Johnson’s new powers to stop groups of more than two people congregating
Police moved the group apart and sent them on their way with people warned they could be fined £1,000
A group of young men are spoken to by Kent Police officers before being dispersed from a children’s play area in Mote Park, Maidstone,
Met officers also spoke to groups on benches in St James’ Park close to Buckingham Palace
But in Southend today groups hugged and kissed (pictured) despite Government warnings not to come within two metres or congregate in groups larger than two
Police officers patrol in an empty Trafalgar Square, which would usually be teeming with tourists
The Prime Minister ordered people only to leave their homes for ‘very limited purposes’, banned public gatherings of more than two people and ordered the closure of non-essential shops.
But police chiefs warned of phone lines being inundated with calls last night with questions about what movements are still permitted, while MPs also called for answers.
Frontline officers are being ‘spat and coughed at’ as coronavirus is ‘used as a weapon’
Police attempting to deal with a serious incident in West Yorkshire were spat and coughed at by a large crowd they were trying to disperse.
West Yorkshire Police PC Rachel Storey posted on Twitter: ‘So whilst scene guarding at a serious incident tonight we were faced with large crowds shoulder to shoulder, spitting on the floor and coughing at us when asking them to move back.
‘Yes coughing then the target of egg throwers on passing motorbikes…. just WHY? no excuse!’
Police Sergeant Charlotte Nicholls added: ‘It was just vile..I had to wash my boots last night when I got home as I couldn’t stop thinking about the amount of spit id stood in!!’
PC Storey replied: ‘I know I’ve also sprayed them with Dettol it’s hard enough without this’.
A Sussex Police officer was also coughed at on Thursday morning by a driver he had pulled over on the M25 who claimed to have Covid-19.
The van driver, who was stopped for using his phone, was found to have no vehicle tax from 2018, no MOT and an illegal tyre.
Pictures on social media suggested that many people in the capital were continuing to use the Underground to travel around, prompting a desperate plea from London Mayor Sadiq Khan: ‘I cannot say this more strongly: we must stop all non-essential use of public transport now. Ignoring these rules means more lives lost.’
Senior police figures have warned that the stringent measures, similar to those already in place in Italy, will be ‘challenging’ with forces across the UK having far fewer officers to call upon than authorities in Rome – with shortages of up to 20,000 officers.
Mr Apter told the BBC today: It’s going to be really tough and what we have to get across to the public is that as far as policing is concerned it is not business as usual.
‘The normal things my colleagues, officers, would normally go to, we need to decide what it is we cannot go to any more.
‘Because dealing with this partial lock-down is going to put incredible amounts of pressure on my colleagues – and they are up for this.’
His warning came after former GMP chief constable Sir Peter Fahy contrasted the police numbers in Italy with those here.
Sir Peter told BBC Breakfast: ‘If you compare us to Italy, we have about half the number of police officers that they have.
‘We don’t have a paramilitary police force like the Carabinieri. Our police officers are already very stretched.
‘I think the Government needs to continue to close down businesses and other parts of operations to limit the places that people can be going, but absolutely at the same time reinforcing the message and clarifying as far as possible all those individual issues.
‘We don’t really want 43 separate police forces in England and Wales interpreting this in different ways and individual officers being faced with real dilemmas about whether to allow this or not to allow it.’
Groups were also exercising in the spring sunshine in Fulham today – but were not sticking to the maximum of two people together at one time
Waitrose in Kings Road. Chelsea had staff managing how many people could enter and the distance they were separated
Police Federation of England and Wales chairman John Apter said officers would have to make tough decisions about law and order as they were called upon to keep people at home as much as possible
Boris Johnson’s coronavirus lockdown backed by 93 PER CENT of the public – poll finds
Boris Johnson’s coronavirus lockdown is backed by 93 per cent of Britons, according to a poll today.
But in a potentially worrying sign for the PM, two-thirds believe that the extraordinary curbs will be easy to obey.
The announcement by the PM last night mean that everyone must stay inside unless it is absolutely essential.
Gatherings of more than two people have been banned in the most dramatic restrictions on freedom ever seen in Britain in time of peace or war.
But research by YouGov shows the measures have overwhelming endorsement from the public,
‘It will require a huge amount of public support, public acceptance and public compliance because if officers are going to be dispersing groups they are going to be asking about things like ‘is there a power of arrest?’ and that will then tie up more and more officers.
‘So, really, there is no way that this can be achieved through enforcement alone.
‘It will have to be that the public hugely accept it and the government continues to issue clarification and reinforces the message.’
Police have also warned that they will have to ignore other crime if they are switched to focusing on coronavirus.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan today said that if people continue to flout the rules police should check ID of workers and use their powers to disperse crowds, which include issuing fines or even arresting those who should be in self-isolation.
Police officers will get new powers to issue the fines and make such arrrests when the Coronavirus Bill becomes law on Thursday.
They will reportedly start at £30 but rise sharply to four figures if the public fail to heed orders to stay at home.
Travellers in the capital could not stick to social distancing on their Tube journey to work this morning, hours after the Prime Minister warned all but essential workers to stay at home.
Mr Khan demanded that employers enable their staff to work from home ‘unless it’s absolutely necessary’, adding: ‘Ignoring these rules means more lives lost. Some of the people on the Tube yesterday and today are not essential workers, I can tell you that’. He added that many packed on to trains appeared to be heading to building sites.
British Transport Police patrol the perimeter of Bristol Temple Meads train station, which is empty of rush-hour commuters and travelers
London Mayor Sadiq Khan today said that if people continue to flout the rules police should check ID of workers and use their powers to disperse crowds, which include issuing fines or even arresting those who should be in self-isolation
Coronavirus UK: New lockdown measures in full
Boris Johnson tonight announced a lockdown plan to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the UK as he told the nation to stay at home.
People will only be allowed to leave their home for the following ‘very limited’ purposes:
Shopping for basic necessities as infrequently as possible.
One form of exercise a day.
Any medical need, to provide care or to help a vulnerable person.
Travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary.
Meanwhile, the PM has announced a ban on:
Meeting with friends.
Meeting with family members you do not live with.
All weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies but excluding funerals.
All gatherings of more than two people in public.
The PM said the police will have the powers to enforce the lockdown measures through fines and dispersing gatherings.
To ensure people comply the government is also:
Closing all shops selling non-essential goods.
Closing all libraries, playground, outdoor gyms and places of worship.
Parks will remain open for exercise, but will be patrolled.
He added that if people continue to flout the rules police should check ID of workers and use their powers to disperse crowds, which include issuing fines or even arresting those who should be in self-isolation.
Many people were nose-to-nose with people on the Tube, trains and buses as well as platforms despite being told to be two metres apart to avoid catching coronavirus, which has claimed 335 lives so far.
The government has come under pressure to urgently clarify who it counts as a ‘key worker’ after Britons woke up in a state of confusion over who is permitted to leave home.
Many construction workers are operating in environments where social distancing is impossible, leaving them fearful of spreading the deadly disease which has killed 335 and infected over 6,000.
Labourers on lunch break at a building site in Battersea, London, were even pictured squeezed around canteen tables just inches from each other.
Some said they felt compelled to come in for fear of losing their jobs, with one telling MailOnline: ‘It’s mad that we have to carry on as normal while everyone at the office sits at home.’
As well as builders, non-essential delivery drivers were also on the roads today, with high street chains John Lewis, H&M, Debenhams and Boux Avenue all maintaining normal services.
Last night in his historic address to the nation, Boris Johnson ordered the public to stay at home unless travelling to work was ‘absolutely necessary’.
It was wrapped into an emergency package of draconian measures to keep people indoors to stem the tide of coronavirus infection, which threatens to overwhelm the NHS.
But the wriggle room left by the Prime Minister over exactly who was allowed to travel was seized upon by many workers who continued to commute to their jobs this morning.
Responding to claims that details of the lockdown were ‘murky’, Michael Gove, the minister for the cabinet office, said: ‘It is the case that construction should continue on sites.
‘People should obviously exercise sensitivity and common sense and follow social distancing measures. But construction sites carried out in the open air can continue’.
He also confirmed that plumbers could continue to carry out emergency repair jobs so long as they observed the two-metre distancing policy.
Yet images from the first day of lockdown showed construction staff huddling together on sites, brazenly flouting social distancing guidelines.
Construction workers wearing face masks seen through safety fencing work on a site near London Bridge in London this afternoon
Police gather at Newcastle’s Monument, moving on people who gather in a bid keep the population social distancing in order to stop the coronavirus spreading on Monday
The Government has set out its key worker definition to battle coronavirus – but many believe it is too vague and is leaving many schools and parents confused about who is eligible
The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation last night cast doubt on officers’ ability to deal with Boris Johnson’s lockdown – meaning the Army may need to help enforce the strict new coronavirus measures.
In his address to the nation Mr Johnson said if people do not follow the new rules officers ‘will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings’.
Police will be able to fine people £30 if they ignore the rules and these on-the-spot fines will be ‘ramped up’ if there is widespread flouting, the government has said.
Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said the lockdown plans would be ‘very difficult’ and he was already seeing ‘large amounts of sickness’ among officers across London.
He told the BBC: ‘As you quite rightly point out, we haven’t seen one of the 24,000 officers that we lost across the country.
‘So it will be very, very challenging and very difficult for us with what’s put in front of us.
‘But we don’t actually know what is being put in front of us yet other than we’re going to be asked to disperse crowds, it’s going to be a real, real challenge.’
Michael Gove forced to apologise after WRONGLY saying children of separated parents cannot travel between homes
Michael Gove was forced to apologise this morning after telling separated parents their children cannot travel between their homes during the coronavirus lockdown – because they are allowed to.
The Cabinet Office Minister appeared on GMB after Boris Johnson’s momentous decision last night to bring in the most stringent peacetime restrictions on the UK’s way of life.
The Prime Minister ordered all but essential workers to remain at home and cease all non-essential travel to combat the spread of the virus, which has so far killed 335 Britons.
But questioned by Susannah Reid Mr Gove told GMBs audience, which includes a high number of anxious mothers and fathers, that youngsters would not be allowed out of one parent’s home to go to the other, if they lives apart.
But this caused an uproar, as official advice issued by the Government last night said that under-18s are among those allowed out of homes if they need to go to their other parent.
Mr Gove swiftly took to Twitter after his interview to say: ‘I wasn’t clear enough earlier, apologies.
‘To confirm – while children should not normally be moving between households, we recognise that this may be necessary when children who are under 18 move between separated parents.
‘This is permissible and has been made clear in the guidance.’
In his address to the nation Mr Johnson said you will be allowed to leave your home for the four very limited reasons:
- Shopping for basics, as infrequently as possible;
- Exercise, such as running, walking or cycling, once a day– alone or with those you live with;
- Travelling to or from work where it is impossible to work from home;
- To care for a vulnerable person or attend an urgent medical appointment.
Mr Marsh told Sky News that he believed the Army could be drafted should police numbers fall due to illness.
He said: ‘The Army are already in place on the outskirts of London and across the country. And I don’t doubt again for one minute that they will be called if needed.
‘Because if we start losing large numbers in policing terms, through isolation and actually having Covid-19, then they are going to step in and support us in some way.
‘It could be tailored in quite quickly and I would save that everything is on the table.’
The Prime Minister intervened with the new restrictions after pictures emerged this week showing people taking advantage of the warm weather on parks and beaches and flouting government guidelines on social distancing.
John Apter, national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said he ‘could not imagine’ how officers would police the ban on gatherings of more than two people.
Referring to Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s earlier comments that police require people to follow the rules, he said: ‘I would urge politicians to think before they make such bold statements.
‘I just cannot rationally think how that would work.’
The Chief Constable of Northamptonshire Police tweeted: ‘Please do not cripple our phone lines with enquiries as to what you can and cannot do during the conditions imposed by the Prime Minister this evening.
‘As soon as we have further clarity on permitted movements, we will upload a specific page on our web site.’
Humberside Police said: ‘We’ve had many calls on our 101 line from people seeking answers, but at this stage we are not able to answer all of your enquiries.’
Martin Hewitt, chairman of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, added: ‘Measures to ensure social distancing have so far not had the necessary effect.
‘These new measures are sensible, based on scientific evidence and give people clarity on the exact steps they must take to stop the rapid transmission of this disease.
‘The majority of people are already making real sacrifices to save lives and we urge everyone to follow the advice that is designed to keep us all safe.
‘We are working with the government and other agencies to consider how these new rules can be most effectively enforced.’0.qa
Police parked at the gates to Greenwich Park on March 22, after people were urged not to visit their mother’s
Boris Johnson plunged the UK into coronavirus lockdown tonight – ordering the closure of all shops selling non-essential goods as well as playgrounds and churches
On Monday evening the Prime Minister detailed a short list of reasons why individuals can leave their homes as he ordered the immediate closure of all shops selling non-essentials items on Monday evening.
He ordered people to only leave the house to shop for basic necessities ‘as infrequently as possible’ and to perform one form of exercise a day.
Or they could seek medical help, provide care to a vulnerable person or travel to work if ‘absolutely necessary’, he said in a televised address from within Downing Street.
‘That’s all – these are the only reasons you should leave your home,’ he said.
‘You should not be meeting friends. If your friends ask you to meet, you should say No. You should not be meeting family members who do not live in your home.
‘If you don’t follow the rules the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.’
To ensure people follow the rules, Mr Johnson ordered the immediate closure of non-essential stores including those selling electronics and clothing.
All public gatherings of more than two people – other than those they live with – will be barred, the PM said.
Pedestrians walk across Clapham Common in south London, despite government advice to stay at home where possible
Other premises being shuttered are libraries, playgrounds, outdoor gyms and places of worship.
And, while parks will remain open for exercise, all social events including weddings and baptisms will be stopped. Funerals, however, can continue.
Hotels and campsites will now join pubs, cafes and restaurants in being closed to slow the disease’s spread.
Mr Johnson said the measures will be ‘under constant review’ and will be considered for relaxation in three weeks’ time if the evidence allows.
He said that ‘no prime minister wants to enact measures like this’ as he reminded the public of the support programme to aid ailing businesses and struggling individuals.
But he said the drastic new measures allowing people to only leave home for the ‘very limited purposes’ were necessary to slow the spread of the disease.
‘To put it simply, if too many people become seriously unwell at one time, the NHS will be unable to handle it – meaning more people are likely to die, not just from coronavirus but from other illnesses as well,’ he added.
Couples are BANNED from staying at each other’s houses, ‘immediate family’ only at funerals and £30 fines and threat of court for anyone found in a group in public – the reality of Boris Johnson’s lockdown rules
The reality of Boris Johnson’s coronavirus lockdown started to become clear today as boyfriends and girlfriends who do not live together were told not to visit each other’s homes.
The Prime Minister last night urged the nation to stay at home and said people should only leave for food, medicine, exercise or work if ‘absolutely necessary’.
He also announced a ban on all social gatherings of more than two people in a desperate attempt to stop the spread of the deadly disease.
Boris Johnson last night put the UK into a state of lockdown in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus
The practical ramifications of the measures are now starting to sink in with Number 10 today telling people who are dating that they should not visit their partner’s house.
You can’t see your boyfriend or girlfriend, but do still have to go to work, says Number 10
The government today advised boyfriends and girlfriends who do not live together not to visit each other but advised workers to carry on working.
Downing Street said lockdown guidance was clear that people should only leave their homes for food, medicine, exercise or to go to work if ‘absolutely necessary’.
No10 said that made it clear that couples who do not live together should not be going to each other’s house.
However, the government remains adamant that people should continue to go to work if they cannot work from home.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons that ‘where people absolutely cannot work from home, they can still go to work, indeed it’s important that they do to keep the country running’.
However, it is currently unclear whether they are allowed to meet in public under the government’s two person gathering rules with Downing Street insistent it will now clarify the matter.
Meanwhile, the government has confirmed police will be able to impose fines of £30 on anyone who does not comply with the ban on groups.
And minsters are warning they will increase those fines ‘significantly’ if people ignore what they have been told.
The government also today said that only small numbers of people can attend funerals, clarifying official advice issued last night which said ‘immediate family’ could attend.
The lockdown imposed on the UK by the PM represents the most sweeping restriction of social freedoms ever in peacetime.
But what the new rules actually mean for people in terms of how they live their lives is still becoming apparent.
The guidance issued by the government said people should only leave their homes to shop for basic necessities, for one form of exercise a day, for any medical need or for work if ‘absolutely necessary’.
It did not mention any exemption for people who are in a relationship but who do not live together.
Downing Street insists funerals must be small
The government today insisted that funerals must only be attended by a small number of people during the coronavirus lockdown.
Official guidance issued last night said funerals should only be open to ‘immediate family’.
But Downing Street today clarified the advice and said it will be at the discretion of families to decide who should attend.
However, officials were adamant the number of people attending must be kept to a minimum.
Downing Street today said the guidance was ‘clear’ and the ‘rules should be applied to all scenarios’ in a clear hint that people should not be visiting partners.
Asked to clarify the situation, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘I think the rules are clear. You should look at those, they are an instruction from the government given for a very specific reason which is to save lives.
‘People should follow the rules and do so in a common sense way.’
The spokesman said the guidance stated that when people leave their homes they should either do so alone or ‘with members of your own household or if it is for work reasons’.
However, Downing Street said it needed to check whether couples could be allowed to meet up in public.
The government has vowed to stop all gatherings of more than two people in public, potentially leaving the door open to couples – assuming they stay two metres away from each other.
Anyone in a group of more than two people in public will now face a fine of £30 if they are spotted by the police.
The new fining powers will be in place by Thursday at the latest with Downing Street today insistent the £30 figure will be increased if people do not comply.
Meanwhile, anyone who refuses to pay the fine could be forced to appear in court.
The PM’s official spokesman said: ‘It will be a fixed penalty notice, it will initially start at £30 but we will keep this under review and can increase it significantly if it is necessary to ensure public compliance.’
He added: ‘Failure to pay the notice could be subject to criminal proceedings and a summary conviction.’
On the issue of funerals, the government’s guidance said only ‘immediate family’ should attend.
Asked to clarify exactly what that meant, the PM’s spokesman said: ‘I think we would expect families to exercise their own discretion in relation to the issue of funerals.
‘They will be best placed to judge what constitutes the people who were closest to the deceased and who they would view as immediate family.’
However, the spokesman insisted funerals must only be attended by small numbers of people.
Mr Johnson said last week that the UK’s lockdown measures will be reviewed after three weeks.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.