MP Jeremy Hunt exclusive column: UK ready for coronavirus challenge

Sunday 1st March 2020 9:00 am
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MP Jeremy Hunt (right) with Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus ()

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This week I spent two days in Geneva meeting the head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an old friend of mine from my time as Health Secretary.

He is responsible for the global response to the Coronavirus outbreak and wanted to update me on progress.

This new virus – Covid19 – is causing massive concern, and rightly so. It spreads almost as easily as flu including – it appears – being passed on by people who are showing no symptoms.

While for most people the outcome is likely to be a few days of flu-like symptoms, older people, those with long term conditions and those with weak immune systems are especially vulnerable.

The other category of people who are bravely putting themselves at risk are health workers where there have been a number of tragic fatalities – particular it appears if you are unlucky enough to catch the virus twice. Overall the mortality rate appears to be between one and two per cent.

Dr Tedros says we are at a critical moment and – as of Tuesday this week when I saw him – it is not possible to say whether the virus will be safely contained in China. While it appears to have peaked, there have been worrying outbreaks in South Korea, Italy and Iran.

The biggest worry of all is what would happen if the virus reached Africa where there are currently no reported cases. The fragility of healthcare systems there means the mortality rate could end up being much higher.

The key thing to watch for now is whether the virus takes hold in Beijing: if it does that will mean the ring of steel around Hubei Province and Wuhan city has failed. Because Beijing is a large international hub, it is unlikely at that point to remain largely in China.

At home we are lucky to have an NHS which is generally well-prepared and capable of dealing with epidemics and pandemics.

The structures of the NHS, which can be so bureaucratic on other occasions, make it possible to respond in an integrated and coordinated way that is the envy of many other healthcare systems.

But even the NHS would find it hard to cope if the pandemic really did take off as hospital beds would soon fill up. There would also be a severe knock on effect on waiting times for other treatments.

Right now a massive amount of planning is happening to minimise the consequences at both Frimley Park and the Royal Surrey and we are lucky to have two superb hospitals on our doorstep.

Having done many dry runs and tabletop exercises for this kind of situation when I was Health Secretary I can say hand on heart that if I was going to be in a country which had a pandemic I would choose the UK.

As citizens too we can all play our part: catching sneezes with a tissue and throwing it away immediately; washing hands regularly; and of course observing any instructions issued by the NHS or government if you are travelling from affected regions.

But most of all it is a time for being generous-spirited and neighbourly: vulnerable older people will need help in any crisis and the strong communities we have in Farnham, Godalming and Haslemere will be there to rise to the challenge.

*Jeremy Hunt is the MP for South West Surrey and newly-elected chairman of the House of Commons’ health and social care select committee

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