Furious MPs demand Government pay workers’ wages through tax system during the coronavirus outbreak

The Government must cover the wages of workers’ threatened with the loss of their livelihoods due to the coronavirus, furious MPs demanded today.

Treasury minister John Glen was blasted by both Labour and Tory backbenchers as he tried to explain help for those facing unemployment as the economy goes into meltdown in the face of the pandemic. 

It came after Boris Johnson suggested last night that a ‘universal basic income’ – or UBI – is among the options on the table to avoid families being plunged into poverty and mass unrest as UK plc grinds to a halt.

France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Spain, Italy and New Zealand are among countries to make job protection a condition of financial lifelines for firms.

Canada meanwhile has offered a wage subsidy for hard-hit small businesses, equal to 10 per cent of salary paid to employees, for three months.

Conservative former business secretary Greg Clark called for immediate action through the current UK taxation system, warning that the £330billlion loan scheme announced by the Government is not enough to prevent firms from making staff redundant.

Asking an urgent question in the Commons this morning he said: ‘All employers have an account with HRMC to pay tax for employees through Pay As You Earn (PAYE). The monthly wage bill is known to HMRC.

‘Instead of firms paying PAYE to the Government, that flow should now be reversed with the nation paying the wages of people for the next weeks if, and only if, they continue to employ their staff.  

‘Separate arrangements would need to be made for the self-employed, but at a stroke this would save people’s jobs, save businesses and put an immediate end to the risk of contagion and help save the economy.’

Conservative former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith also suggested changing benefit rates and reducing waiting times to offer assistance to people via Universal Credit. 

Conservative former business secretary Greg Clark called for immediate action through the current taxation system, warning that the £330billlion loan scheme announced by the Government is not enough to prevent firms from making staff redundant

Businesses across the UK have been forced to close their doors as the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll on the economy, leaving workers at risk of ruin

Businesses across the UK have been forced to close their doors as the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll on the economy, leaving workers at risk of ruin

Treasury Secretary John Glen said that more measures to help workers would be announced as soon as possible as he faced increasing anger from MPs

Treasury Secretary John Glen said that more measures to help workers would be announced as soon as possible as he faced increasing anger from MPs

Last night the PM hinted every Briton could get cash payments from the government amid fears the coronavirus crisis could leave millions of people without jobs.

No layoffs, reduced rent: ‘Italian cure’ for global coronavirus pandemic 

Companies are barred from laying off workers and rents have been reduced under Italy’s economic survival plan for life at the European epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hailed his 25-billion-euro ($28-billion) programme as the ‘Italian model’ that the rest of Europe could adopt as it imposes its own painful lockdowns.

Italy’s 2,978 official COVID-19 deaths account for more than half of those reported outside China.

Its nationwide containment measures are meant to see death rates that hit a global one-day record of 475 on Wednesday plateau and start to come down this month.

Other European nations are now taking on Italy’s painful social distancing measures – and Conte believes they will also adopt his remedy for families and businesses hurt by the fight against the invisible killer disease.

‘When we talk about the Italian model, we are not only talking about health but also the economic response to the crisis,’ Conte said while unveiling his ‘Cura Italia’ (‘Italian Cure’) plan at the start of the week.

Other European countries will probably never take on all 127 of the points that Conte – a former law professor – and his team of technocratic ministers drafted in the heat of Italy’s gravest emergency since World War II.

The extraordinary move is being considered by ministers as the scale of the economic meltdown the country faces becomes clear – with warnings that ‘social distancing’ measures could see GDP slump by 20 per cent and the hospitality sector effectively disappear.    

As the global chaos escalates, US president Donald Trump has put forward similar proposals to hand most Americans payments of $1,000.

Under the plans – part of a $1trillion rescue package – the cash would be distributed within weeks. 

Peter Dowd MP, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, said today: ‘The government itself recognised today that its plan to protect jobs and wages will not feel sufficient to many, which is a stark admission of failure.

‘The government also said it would ‘expect’ businesses to use the loan guarantees given to support workers, but an expectation is simply not good enough.

‘It must be a requirement of loans given that no business will lay off workers, and the government should urgently bring forward a plan to underwrite the bulk of the wages of workers at risk of losing their jobs.’

‘This crisis is too significant, and the impact on people’s lives is too serious, for any more delay.’

Labour’s Eltham MP Clive Efford asked Mr Glen this morning: ‘What is hard to understand is how after six-and-a-half weeks, where we knew we might reach this stage, that the Government has got no idea what it’s going to do to pay the wages of those people who are being laid off.

‘There’s a whole tranche of people who are going to be laid off now. There will be more industries that will lay people off next week and the week after.

‘If the Government doesn’t act now, it won’t be able to retrieve the situation. How have we got to this point where the Government hasn’t got a clue?’

Mr Glen responded: ‘I accept the frustration of (Mr Efford) but, I have to say, to characterise the Government’s situation as ‘not having a clue’, I think, does misrepresent it considerably.’

He added: ‘I understand (Mr Efford) is not happy with the Government’s announcements so far, but there will be more that will be coming.’

Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a £350billion bailout earlier this week, made up of loans, grants and rate reliefs for businesses, earlier this week.

Individuals caught up in the turmoil will be able to get three-month mortgage holidays, and private renters will be protected from eviction.

Labour's Eltham MP Clive Efford asked Mr Glen this morning: 'What is hard to understand is how after six-and-a-half weeks, where we knew we might reach this stage, that the Government has got no idea what it's going to do to pay the wages of those people who are being laid off'

Labour’s Eltham MP Clive Efford asked Mr Glen this morning: ‘What is hard to understand is how after six-and-a-half weeks, where we knew we might reach this stage, that the Government has got no idea what it’s going to do to pay the wages of those people who are being laid off’

However, while the PM said the package was ‘unprecedented in peacetime’, he has been warned that the government will need to go much further, with grim predictions that the coronavirus misery could last over a year. 

The Treasury is looking at a range of options including amending the existing universal credit system, and hiking statutory sick pay.

Previous reports from fiscal groups have suggested UBI figures ranging from £48 a week to £1,000 per person a month. However, it would be hugely expensive and ministers would be allocating large sums to many people who are already quite well off. 

More than 56,000 people have signed a petition calling on the government to implement the idea to provide them with ‘home and food security’ amid the ongoing crisis.  

Earlier this week, the government’s own OBR financial watchdog suggested that ministers should step in to pay utility bills for all Britons, or cancel council tax altogether. 

The Resolution Foundation has has urged the government to create a new benefit that could pay a million of the most vulnerable workers two-thirds of their usual salaries. 

Some commuters were still struggling into work in London today despite speculation that the lockdown could be tightened

Some commuters were still struggling into work in London today despite speculation that the lockdown could be tightened

An empty commuter train between Sussex and London this morning, amid fears the capital is about to be put into lockdown

An empty commuter train between Sussex and London this morning, amid fears the capital is about to be put into lockdown

Empty shelves at a Sainsbury's supermarket in Northwich, where rationing is in place to ensure pensions can get supplies after panic buying caused shortages

Empty shelves at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in Northwich, where rationing is in place to ensure pensions can get supplies after panic buying caused shortages

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced yesterday that a weekly cash payment for British workers was being considered in the form of a 'universal basic income' (UBI)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced yesterday that a weekly cash payment for British workers was being considered in the form of a ‘universal basic income’ (UBI)

How would Universal Basic Income work? 

Universal Basic Income has been mooted in different forms across the world, although there have been few large-scale examples. 

The idea has become increasingly scrutinised as automation progresses, with concerns that machines could render many traditional jobs redundant. 

The main features of the policy are that it covers essential costs for every individual, without being means tested.

Various levels of payments have been mooted, with some suggesting a level of £1,000 per month in the UK.

But critics point out it would be eye-wateringly expensive, and could remove the incentive for many people to go to work.

Labour considered putting a UBI policy in its manifesto before Christmas, but in the end only vaguely suggested there would be a pilot scheme. 

More watered down concepts would involve means testing, or tapering the payments off depending on other income. 

Similar schemes to Universal Basic Income have been implemented in Western Kenya over a 12-year period, and trialled in Italy and the Netherlands. 

A two-year trial in Finland was scrapped, and a scheme in Canada was scrapped after three years.

In the wake of Covid-19, Ireland and Denmark have announced similar schemes to help citizens.

In a report last year, Professor Guy Standing of SOAS University suggested that if some 60 million people were paid £48 a week, it would cost the government about £150bn a year.

Daniel Susskind, a fellow in economics at Balliol College, Oxford university, suggests in the Financial Times today that a £1,000 cash payout per person per month would cost the government about £66bn a month. 

He says this is, ‘a fraction of the nearly £500bn bailout the UK needed to stay afloat during the 2008 financial crisis.’

More than 500 political figures and academics around the world have called for universal basic income in the fight against coronavirus, signing a letter published in The Independent today, while Labour leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey has also mooted the idea – but not given a suggested figure.  

Mr Sunak announced the bailout measures on Tuesday in a bid to stop the pandemic wiping out entire sectors amid fears ‘social distancing’ measures could see a million people lose their jobs within months. 

Some analysts say GDP could crash by a fifth this year – in line with fears voiced in the US.

Employment has been at a record high, but experts point out there are five million workers in the retail sector, 2.5million in hospitality, and a million in arts, entertainment and leisure. 

However, while his initial steps were welcomed across industries, there are warnings that providing companies with loans rather than grants could mean they are not viable in the long-term. 

There are calls for the government to defer VAT bills and suspending national insurance.  

But CBI chief Carolyn Fairbairn suggested that VAT should be axed, and national insurance should be ‘reversed’ to pump cash into businesses,

‘The absolute top priority right now is for businesses to be able to keep their people in jobs, in employment, and we think there needs to be more on that,’ she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

‘This is about using existing systems, it’s all about speed. So the thought that we have put to the chancellor is to reverse national insurance contributions – not just defer or cancel them, but actually get the flow working in the other direction.’ 

She said an injection of £35billion could come from cancelling or deferring VAT. ‘There are some very large tax bills hitting companies in the next few weeks. We have a £35billion VAT bill. 

‘This is an immediate impact; it doesn’t require businesses to apply for anything. So looking at the tax bills, and seeing if they can be cancelled or deferred,’ she said. 

Queues outside Sainsbury's in Hertford this morning as the coronavirus crisis causes chaos and panic across the country

Queues outside Sainsbury’s in Hertford this morning as the coronavirus crisis causes chaos and panic across the country

In Downing Street last night, Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak (right) said they were acting like a 'wartime government' and would do 'whatever it takes' to keep the economy going

In Downing Street last night, Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak (right) said they were acting like a ‘wartime government’ and would do ‘whatever it takes’ to keep the economy going

Gordon Brown urges government to ‘do more’ on bailout 

Former prime minister and chancellor Gordon Brown has urged the Government to do ‘considerably more’ in the next 48 hours to protect people’s jobs amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

Mr Brown, who led the Labour Party in government during the 2008 financial crash, said the scale of the crisis now facing the country is ‘unprecedented’ as he called for international co-operation instead of ‘populist nationalism’. 

The ex-PM said Chancellor Rishi Sunak would have to do more to deal with the issues of employment protection – with many people facing the prospect of losing their jobs due to the pandemic. 

‘(Mr Sunak) says he’ll do more but the package should be out now to avoid redundancies being forced upon companies over the next day or two,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. 

‘I think a lot of company directors will be looking at the moment to how many staff they are going to shed in the next few days, next few weeks. 

‘And I think we need to step in now with building the confidence that we can keep people in work or keep people on short term in work and have an arrangement with people where they take some holidays but at the same time they are going to have income protection. 

‘If families don’t have income protection there’s a lot of other consequences: people try to work if they are sick, people put themselves at risk. 

‘Their health becomes an issue of public health and I think we really have to step in to deal with this particular blockage at the moment and I hope the Chancellor will act before the end of tomorrow.’ 

Jonathan Neame, chief executive of brewer and pub chain Shepherd Neame, warned that the government’s loan package was not what was needed to stop job losses.

‘I think the problem is that most businesses don’t want to take on more debt,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. ‘We have got a very high fixed cost base. Our assets are our people…

‘When you have a demand shock like we have had over the past couple of days then the only place that most businesses can look is to lay off staff.’

He added: The package that was put forward last night was not what we asked for. What we asked for was the immediate cancellation of these taxes…

‘There is a lot of tax payable in the next week or so.’

Mr Neame said: ‘At this particular moment in the year with April coming up, most people have got a big VAT bill and they have a big end of year tax bill that they have got to pay. 

‘We were saying, immediately cancel those taxes.’    

The boss of Superdry has warned of a ‘fluid and uncertain’ situation after it closed 78 stores across Europe as governments force high streets to close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  

One of Britain’s biggest food and pub companies said that sales are ‘getting worse by the day’. Wagamama-owner The Restaurant Group, which also runs several pub-restaurants across the country, said that like-for-like sales were down 12.5 per cent in the last two weeks. 

Marston’s, which runs 1,400 pubs and warned that Government advice to avoid eating or drinking out would cause ‘significantly lower sales in the coming weeks’.     

‘People are worried and I’m just disappointed that today’s package of measures didn’t really appreciate the urgency and the gravity of the situation for those individuals and those families.’

The respected IFS think-tank said the bailout announced on Tuesday was ‘a substantial level of support’,  but warned it was ‘probably not well targeted at saving jobs’.

Director Paul Johnson said: ‘It will remain as expensive to pay people and if demand is down then jobs are likely to go.’ 

Labour’s Jess Phillips also questioned whether the Government’s statutory sick pay – for those in self-isolation attempting to quell the virus spreading further – was sufficient to live on.

The Government has been facing calls to increase the payment level from £94.25 a week – considerably less than many other European nations – and ensure there is support for the two million low-paid workers who are not eligible.

The Birmingham Yardley MP asked the Chancellor: ‘A simple question. Has he lived on that and could he live on that, as that’s what most of my constituents are currently having to live on?’

Paul Dales, chief UK economist at Capital Economics, told The Times: ‘After going through the sectors and pencilling in some large falls for the ones where activity could be almost non-existent for a few months and leaving others unchanged, it is worryingly easy to arrive at a fall in GDP in the second quarter in the region of 10 per cent to 20 per cent.’ 

John Philpott, a labour market economist, said: ‘A large part of the UK’s jobs miracle could be wiped away within a matter of months. I’d expect half a million to a million would be under threat.’  

Some supermarkets have brought in special shopping hours for pensioners amid fears panic buying could cause shortages

Some supermarkets have brought in special shopping hours for pensioners amid fears panic buying could cause shortages

Mr Sharma said the Government was working on measures to support people in employment and to help renters after announcing a three-month holiday for mortgage payers.

‘Of course people want us to go further. The Chancellor set out very clearly that we will be coming forward when it comes to employment measures. We will come forward with that as quickly as possible.

‘I know this is a very anxious time for lots of people. They are concerned about their livelihoods. That is why we have moved so quickly to provide this £350 billion package of support.

‘We will continue to provide support where it is needed. The Prime Minister has been clear that we will do whatever it takes to protect people’s health, to protect people’s livelihoods.

‘We had a significant intervention yesterday. We are ready to do more.’

What is in Chancellor’s coronavirus bailout? 

Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a raft of measures designed to prop up an economy teetering under the pressure of coronavirus this week. They included:

  • Government-backed loan guarantees worth £330billion – equivalent to 15 per cent of GDP 
  • Treasury prepared to increase this with ‘as much capacity as required’
  • This money in two forms:  a new lending facility for large firms with Banks of England;
  • And for SMEs an extension of the Business Interruption Loan Scheme announced last week from £1.2million to £5million
  • Additionally there will be a 12-month business rate holiday for all firms in retail, leisure and hospitality sectors
  • Cash grants of up to £25,000 per business for small businesses with a ratable value below £51,000
  • Cash grants for 700,000 of the smallest businesses increased from £3,000 to £10,000 
  • A three-month mortgage holiday for homeowners 
  • A pledge to sit down with trade unions and business groups to discuss job protection


He defended the unprecedented spending, saying it was ‘not a time for ideology and orthodoxy, this is a time to be bold, a time for courage’.

He added: ‘Many businesses are frankly struggling right now. They haven’t done anything wrong but are watching their finances fall off a cliff.’

The astonishing package came at a Downing Street press conference where Boris Johnson vowed that his administration ‘must and will act with a profound sense of urgency’ and would be like a ‘wartime government’.

Despite a business backlash over the dramatic ‘social distancing’ measures announced just 24 hours before, the Prime Minister warned that Covid-19 was so dangerous that without drastic action it would ‘overwhelm the NHS’.

On Monday night, Mr Johnson urged the public to work from home and avoid going to pubs, cinemas restaurants and other social activities.

The move prompted warnings that the hospitality sector would collapse. The airline industry, which is set to benefit from a separate deal later this week, is also teetering on the brink of disaster.

Speaking ahead of Mr Sunak’s announcement, the former Treasury minister Jim O’Neill warned that hundreds of thousands of jobs were at immediate risk without Government action.

The Prime Minister said the scale of the financial package reflected the huge challenge the virus now posed to the economy as well as the health system.

Mr Johnson said ministers had to ‘act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy’.

He added: ‘We must support millions of businesses and tens of millions of individuals and families through the coming months.’

The PM warned the ‘extreme’ measures designed to slow the spread of the virus ‘may have to go further and faster to protect lives and the NHS’.

Under the terms of the new financial package, large firms will be able to apply to the Bank of England for loans at ‘below market rates’.

Smaller firms will be eligible for Government-backed loans from their banks.

In both cases, the Government will fund all interest payments for the first six months.

All firms in the hospitality sector will benefit from a year-long business rates holiday.

Companies in the sector with a rateable value of less than £51,000 will be given cash grants worth up to £25,000. Another 700,000 small firms across the economy will get grants worth £10,000 each to help tide them over.

Mr Sunak said more support was coming to support households, including ‘new forms of income support to protect people’s jobs and incomes through this period’.

Trade body UK Hospitality, which warned on Monday of a ‘catastrophic’ impact on jobs and business, last night gave the plans a cautious welcome.

Chief executive Kate Nicholls said Mr Sunak had ‘clearly been listening’, adding: ‘The focus now has to be on making sure that hospitality businesses can draw down the support loans and other funds while they still have businesses to operate.’

Tim Martin, founder of pub chain Wetherspoon, said he welcomed ‘what sounds like a wholehearted attempt to help business and the country.’

However he warned: ‘It’s very expensive and loans will have to be paid back.’

The British Beer and Pub Association called for specific measures within 24 hours. 

The respected IFS think-tank said the package was ‘substantial’ for business, but warned the protections for the hospitality industry was ‘probably not well targeted in terms of saving jobs’.

It said ‘those who lose their jobs and renters with little or no savings look particularly exposed’. 

Director Paul Johnson said: ‘He will need to come back with more.’ 

The Chancellor is expected to announce further protections by the end of this week. 


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.


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