Mar 25, 2020
Boris Johnson UK Coronavirus Daily Briefing Transcript March 25
Boris Johnson: (09:10)
Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us for today’s daily briefing on coronavirus. I’d like to update you all on the government’s plan to defeat the virus and on the latest developments. I am joined once again by our chief medical officer, professor Chris Whitty and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. From the very beginning of this crisis, I followed the advice of our world leading scientists to defeat coronavirus by taking the right measures at the right time.
Boris Johnson: (09:49)
What everybody needs to recognize is that our NHS, like any world class health service, has any limited numbers of doctors, nurses, and specialist equipment. So the more people who become sick at any one time, the harder it is for the NHS to cope. And so it’s vital to delay the spread of the disease and reduce the number of people needing hospital treatment at any one time. That’s why we’ve given the clear instruction that people must stay at home unless they have one of the reasons we’ve set out. With your help, we will slow the spread of the disease. I want to thank everyone who’s been following the clear rules that we set out on Monday. And I want to thank everyone in the NHS, the frontline of the fight against coronavirus, and of course all our public services, our teachers and our school staff, the transport workers, police officers, everyone who’s keeping this country going. But I also want to offer a special thank you-
Boris Johnson: (11:03)
But I also want to offer a special thank you to everyone how has now volunteered to help the NHS. When we launched the appeal last night, we hoped to get 250,000 volunteers over a few days. But I can tell you that in just 24 hours, 405,000 people have responded to the call. They will be driving medicines from pharmacies to patients. They will be bringing patients home from hospital. Very importantly, they’ll be making regular phone calls to check on and support people who are staying on their own at home. They will be absolutely crucial in the fight against this virus. That is already, in one day, as many volunteers as the population of Coventry. So to all of you and to all the former NHS staff who are coming back now into the service, I say thank you on behalf of the entire country.
Boris Johnson: (12:06)
Now I want to take some questions. But, finally, I want to remind everyone of our core policy. Stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives. Thank you. I think we’ll go straight to questions now. We are going to hear, first of all, I think from Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC. Laura are you there?
Laura Kuenssberg: (12:35)
Thank you, prime minister, yes. Prime minister, can you honestly say that the government is coping? There aren’t enough tests. People are struggling to make ends meet, and some people are being forced to go to work when they don’t feel that they are safe. Is that coping? Can I ask the medics as well, if we already have the kinds of numbers of tests that you would like to see, how much of a difference would it have made to your ability to fight the disease?
Boris Johnson: (13:03)
Well, first of all, Laura, on the tests, a huge national program of testing is being rolled out, but I’ll hand over to Patrick and to Chris to say a little bit more about testing and how we’re going to do it. But on the national effort to protect those whose jobs, whose livelihoods are threatened, I think everybody understands the challenge that the whole country now faces. But we have to get through this together, and we are getting through it together with an unprecedented program of support not just for businesses but for workers of all kinds across the country. Never in our history has the government put its arms around people in the way that we are doing now to help them get through this difficult time. Yes, it is absolutely true that the measures to support people in employment are exceptional and extraordinary. 80% of your salary, up to 2,500 pounds per month, we’re standing behind. We’re also, in the course of the next couple of days, you’ll be hearing more from Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, tomorrow about what we’re doing to help the self-employed. I think people do understand that the complexity of their working arrangements has been harder to come up with the right tailored program for the self-employed as well. But that is coming forward tomorrow.
Boris Johnson: (14:30)
Yes, I do think that when you look at the sheer scale of what the government is doing to get this country through, to answer your correction directly, we will cope, and we are coping very well indeed under the most challenging possible circumstances. But the most important thing to enable us to get through it well together and to come out well together, as I think we can, as I know we can, is that we all follow the instructions that the government has given. Stay at home. Protect the NHS. That’s the way to save lives.
Boris Johnson: (15:09)
But on testing, perhaps, Chris, would you like to say some more?
In terms of testing, there are a variety of different things you use testing for, some of which we have tests available for and have done throughout, some of which we do not. So I’m going to run through them because they’re different answers depending on which you’re talking about. Starting off with the antigen testing, which is testing for people who’ve currently got a disease, we initially were using that to help screen people who came from high-risk countries. When that ceased to be a sensible policy, we moved on to testing people in intensive cares and in hospitals, and we have sufficient tests for that at the moment. The system for that is working fine and is being scaled up. So that side of testing is in place and is working well. So if a patient gets as far as a hospital, we’re confident on the testing and on the scale up.
The thing we would like to do next, which would certainly make a difference less to the disease but definitely to the NHS, is being able to test NHS and other critical workers who are self-isolating who currently are not being tested because we do not have sufficient testing. This is a global problem, because basically every country is wanting this new test for a disease that wasn’t actually being tested for anywhere up through three months ago. So everybody wants this. So there is a global shortage, and that’s a bottleneck for us. But the next priority is to get critical workers back to work or to say to them you have got this. So we definitely would like that, not to fight the disease, but to support the NHS.
Once we have more testing than we need for that capacity, then we want to go out to test a much wider range of people with mild systems. Some people are already having it as part of our surveillance system, but we’d obviously like to go wider. But that’s the prioritization list. Then separately there are other tests which we will want to have, which are not yet absolutely evaluated, but are going to be critical once we’ve got them that can tell someone whether they have had the virus. So this is the antibody test. You can’t do that in the first few days after someone’s had a fever, but after a few weeks, possibly a short as one week. That will allow us to be able to say to NHS workers, to other workers, look, you’ve had this infection at least for the short time and possibly for quite a long time. We think it’s likely you’re protected against this, and you can go back to work and be confident, if you get another cough and fever, that is not going to be Coronavirus. But that’s the sort of technology that’s quite close, and it’s being evaluated this week, but [inaudible 00:17:41] there. On the first one, our bottleneck is largely global shortages, which we are obviously doing our level best to free up, because it would make it a lot better for us to be able to test health care workers now, for sure.
Patrick [crosstalk 00:17:54]
Boris Johnson: (17:55)
… testing is crucial. It’s absolutely crucial, and, yes, we need more of it, as Chris has said. The other thing that’s going to be important with the antibody test is to be able to work out how many people have had the disease asymptomatically. That’s going to be important to understand what to do next. These tests are crucially important. We need more of them. People are working very hard to get them in place.
The one thing, finally, that I think is the one thing that’s worse than no test is a bad test. So telling someone inaccurately either they have had it or have not had it can lead to dangerous mistakes being made. So we do not want to go ahead with testing until we’re confident of the technology.
Boris Johnson: (18:36)
That is so important. If it means a delay to get there, that delay is worth having, because that is, as Chris said … If you tell someone it’s okay, you haven’t got it, and they have got it, that is not a good position to be in. If you tell somebody they’re immune from it and they’re not, that is not a good position to be in. So we must make sure that we get the quality of this absolutely right.
Boris Johnson: (19:00)
[inaudible 00:19:00] Patrick, on the numbers of people who have the disease asymptomatically, there was a study I saw quoted from some Oxford academics saying that as many as 50% may have had it asymptomatically. I think a lot of people have seen that story. How do you evaluate that at this stage?
We simply don’t know at the moment. That’s why the antibody test is so important. So there are estimates that up to 80% or more of people in Wuhan weren’t detected. There are estimates that, of those who are positive, so that’s a small percentage of the population who tested positive, quite a number of them were asymptomatic in a town in Italy. But we don’t know at the general population level, and that’s why it’s so important to get this test in place.
Boris Johnson: (19:49)
Thank you. Beth Rigby, Sky News.
Beth Rigby: (19:53)
Thank you, prime minister, just a couple of questions. You said earlier you’re not closing down the whole of the UK colony. But other countries such as Italy, a country you said we were two or three weeks behind, have now introduced a very strict lockdown. Wouldn’t you save more lives if you did keep all nonessential workers at home? If I may, a question on testing. [inaudible 00:20:23] England has said today 3.5 million testing kits could be available to show whether you’ve had Coronavirus or not as early as next week. In practical terms, who will get those tests and how? In broader terms, how transformational do you think this will be in terms of fighting Coronavirus? Thank you.
Boris Johnson: (20:48)
Well, thanks very much, Beth. In terms of the epidemiological value of what we’re doing in asking people to stay at home, I think possibly the most thing I could say is just repeat the basic message, which is that if you can stay at home, then you overwhelmingly should stay at home. That’s our most important advice. If it’s absolutely necessary for you to go to work, to a place of work, then it’s vital that your employer follows the rules as set out by Public Health England and ensures that you have the protections that you need, and the proper rules on social distancing do apply. But I wonder whether I could ask [inaudible 00:21:35] comment on the value of what we’re doing in terms of the … Beth asked, reasonably enough, about not closing down the whole UK colony, which we’re not doing. But we’re simply asking people to stay at home. Is there anything you want to say?
Well, I can certainly give an answer. Patrick might want to add to this. The first thing is the modeling … Every country does this slightly differently, and every country has got a slightly different epidemic pattern at this point in time, so that’s entirely reasonable.
An epidemic pattern at this point in time. So that’s entirely reasonable and all of us of course are dealing with a new infection and therefore are having to take the science from quite a low base very fast in terms of the advice we give.
But the modeling we have done here, which Patrick can talk about in more detail, was based on the idea that quite a lot of people would have to go to work as part of this and that is the basis on which the modeling is done. But we absolutely need people to avoid anything that is in any way discretionary, where people can choose whether they do it or not. So that’s why all other social activity, all other mixing between households has to stop, is to allow these absolutely essential things to continue. So that’s the basis of doing this.
There is an additional reason, which is we have to remember that many of the things we have to do are going to be have to be sustained for a reasonably long period of time and broadly the more difficult you make it for people, the less easy it is to sustain. So there is some degree of trade off between those two things.
In terms of testing I want to be really clear about what we can and can’t do. We certainly have acquired, for the UK, a lot of tests, but I would go back to my previous answer, and Patrick’s previous answer, the key thing for us to do is now to evaluate are these tests accurate enough to be used by the general public? And if the answer is they’re all incredibly accurate, then we will work out the most quick and effective way to release these.
If it turned out none of them were accurate, we would not wish to release any of them because inaccurate testing is something which we really should be avoiding. So the thing we are going to do really fast is the evaluation and then based on that evaluation we will be able to decide what to do next.
I don’t know whether perhaps you want to add anything on the modeling side?
The only thing I’d reemphasize is what we’re trying to do is to break the transmission of virus from one household to another. We’re trying to break the transmission of virus in society. To do that, we need to keep separate. And the clearest way to keep separate is to stay in your house, and that’s why that’s the core message.
There are people who have to go to work in some jobs who cannot stay in their house all day and the most obvious one is in the NHS, but there are others as well. And then it’s important to break the transmission, where possible, to stay two meters apart. And that’s what we need to keep focusing on. We’re trying to stop the transmission of this virus between people, between households, and break that chain.
In terms of whether it’s transformational in the long run. The answer is it will completely transform what we can do. In the short run, this antibody test, which is the one that were talking about with these big numbers, I think is less important than the other one, the antigen test I was talking about earlier in a previous answer.
Boris Johnson: (24:59)
Thanks. So I should have said more clearly perhaps at the beginning that you should stay at home, except for those very few exceptions. I just spell them out again, if people have forgotten. Unless you need to get essential supplies, Beth, unless your on a specific medical mission or helping the vulnerable, or unless you’re taking daily exercise. And remember the daily exercise is very important, provided you stay away from other people. Gary Gibbon, Channel 4.
Gary Gibbon: (25:33)
Prime Minister, the frontline staff and the National Health Service and in working in social care couldn’t be clearer. They want that test on COVID-19 that tells them whether they got it, they want it now.
Gary Gibbon: (25:44)
In the House of Commons, again and again today, you said they’re going to get it as soon as possible. People might have a little bit more confidence about where we’re going as a country if you could answer this question mainly, how did we come to be so woefully behind other countries that have checked, evaluated, and deployed tests in much, much bigger numbers already?
Boris Johnson: (26:07)
Well, thanks, thanks Gary. I repeat the answer that I gave earlier in the House of commons. We will do it as soon as possible. We are massively ramping up our testing programs, buying in huge numbers of tests to see whether you’ve had it already, but also pushing forward very fast on testing people to see whether they currently have it.
Boris Johnson: (26:31)
The antigen or the antibody tests that have been described. And as, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary has said, we’re going up from 5,000 to 10,000 tests per day, to 25,000 and so on. Hopefully very soon up to 250,000 a day.
Boris Johnson: (26:50)
But to answer your question about the types of tests that we have, the differences that you see in between the UK’s provision for testing and other countries, I think it probably would be most helpful if I again pass to Chris and to Patrick to explain. Chris.
I think that in terms of the testing, so first of all, why the delays in the UK system? There are multiple components of these tests, including the chemicals that make them up, the swabs that you use, and there are shortages along many of these supply chains, essentially because every country in the world is simultaneously wanting this new thing.
Some components of it are old, but the scale of this is something which is obviously occurred at extraordinary speed and that’s just a practical reality. And I think anyone who understands how supply chains work and the huge demand for this there is globally would understand that.
I think comparing different countries is actually quite difficult. Different countries have got different testing strategies, but you’re certainly right that what we need to do is look at those countries that have actually got more testing than us and work out how to do it the way they’re doing it as best we can in our own system using our own testing systems. That’s something we’re doing very actively at the moment.
Clearly we’re doing a lot of testing here though. For example, looking at the numbers we’ve done so far, 97,000 tests already conducted. It’s not that there is no testing going on, what we need, clearly, is to be able to scale it up.
Nothing to add.
Boris Johnson: (28:19)
I would just add to that that we’ve done many more tests, not that this is a competition, we’ve done many more tests than most other European countries. And you’re totally right, Gary, that the priority should be, and will be, getting those tests to our frontline staff in the NHS. And as I said, we are going to do that as fast as we possibly can. Francis Elliott, of The Times.
Francis Elliott: (28:50)
Yes. Hello, Public Health England this morning suggested that these tests, these antibiotic tests, if they work, could be available from online stores and from Boots. Can we just explain, and I understand that they may not work, but if they do work, how are you going to prioritize who gets those tests or is it just going to be a scramble, and how do you verify the test results? Presumably these will be critically important about whether you can work with vulnerable people or even begin to go back to normal work perhaps. And lastly, how do you collect the results so that you can model what’s happening elsewhere? It seems that you do self testing and this is obviously a very important result.
Boris Johnson: (29:37)
So what we’ll do is, once we’re confident of which tests work and how many therefore we’ve got available to use, there’s a hierarchy of things that we need to do. We need to start off by answering that critical question that Patrick was talking about. What proportion of people get this without any symptoms? Because that has big implications for the way we then manage this. That’s a very early priority. Then we need to help make sure we can get NHS workers tested to make sure we can work out who is immune, or almost certainly immune, to this infection and who isn’t, and we will basically go out in a graded way from there.
I do not think, and I want to be clear, that this is something we’ll suddenly be ordering on the internet next week. We need to go through the evaluation, then the first critical uses, and then spread it out from that point of view, and we need to do that in a systematic way.
And your point, which is right, the first thing we need to do is to collect the information and to understand this epidemic. So it’s not 3.5 million free for all with no data being collected. We need to answer the critical questions and need to make sure the right people get the tests first in order to allow workers to go back, and the other points that Chris has made.
Boris Johnson: (30:52)
Thanks very much, Patrick. Sam Lister, the State Express.
Laura Kuenssberg: (30:58)
Thank you. Prime Minister, your critics have suggested that you’ve had to be dragged into taking the action you announced on Monday and that you’ve allowed the virus to spread. Do you regret not going further sooner? And also, if I may, you suggested in the Commons earlier that you might introduce new laws to deal with profiteering. Are you angry at retailers and individuals who are trying to exploit this crisis? And how far are you prepared to go? Could it include jail terms?
Boris Johnson: (31:30)
Thanks very much, Sam. Well, on the first, very important question, as I said right at the beginning, and indeed right at the beginning of this crisis, we were going to do the right measures at the right time, and not according to political dictac, but according to the best scientific and medical advice in the world.
Boris Johnson: (31:52)
There are good reasons for wanting to tackle an epidemic strictly in accordance with the scientific advisor. That is what we have done and I continue to believe that that is the right approach for this country, the right approach for the UK. We have the best scientific advice in the world and we will continue to follow it.
Boris Johnson: (32:10)
On your other important question about profiteering, I dislike it very much and I do not want to see people profiteering, people exploiting people’s need, at a critical time, a national emergency. So we are indeed looking very carefully at what is going on. The Competition and Markets Authority already has various powers that it may use, but we are looking at the legislative framework to see what it may be necessary to do to prevent profiteering, just as happened in wartime many, many years ago.
Boris Johnson: (32:47)
Is there anything you want to add on any of that?
The most important measures got put in place first and that’s the right thing to do. Washing hands was critical. Isolating, household isolation, get these things, and now we’ve got a very…
… household isolation, get these things and now we’ve got a very strong package in. The one thing I would say, it’s incredibly important that we stick to it. It’s incredibly important that people understand that this is about breaking the transmission of the virus and we can only do that if we all do it.
Boris Johnson: (33:18)
That is absolutely right. Thank you. David Hughes, last question. David Hughes, PA.
David Hughes: (33:25)
Prime Minister, by tomorrow it will already be too late for many self-employed people who have already found themselves in hardship or being forced to risk their health and that of others by continuing to work. What’s your message to them, and will you apologize for the delay in providing them with the kind of support that employed workers have already been given? And to the CMO, what’s the current occupation rate of critical care beds in England? Can you be confident that the measures announced over the past week will prevent that capacity being overwhelmed?
Boris Johnson: (33:53)
Well, thanks very much David. I’ll just really repeat what I’ve said before, I think the government has moved with extraordinary speed to support and prop up the whole of the economy of this country, putting our arms around workers of all kinds to the best extent that we possibly can. Yes, of course it was easier to move furthest and fastest with employees because their PAYE details are of course available. It’s been more complex, as you can understand, to support the self-employed because there are many different arrangements that they have and it’s been tricky to work out a package that will address the needs of as many people as possible. But that is being done. It’s being done at incredible speed. [inaudible 00:01:44] we’ll be announcing a package tomorrow.
Boris Johnson: (34:47)
I genuinely don’t think there’s been a time in our history in the last century, certainly, when the government of this country has put its arms around so many people to get us through a very tough time. We will get through it and we will get through it together.
On critical care, so at this point in time, critical cares, as of today, there is not enormous pressure on critical cares compared to a bad or even normal winter day. For example, in NHS today, but we expect the demand for critical care beds to continue to rise over the next two weeks. That is entirely what we expect to happen and that is what will happen over that time. Clearly the demand is going to go up from the coronavirus. Now because of the actions that people are taking and provided everybody continues to keep the social-distancing measures, which are very difficult in terms of staying within households only doing absolutely essential things apart from exercise, that will help to pull down the demand a very long way. That is how people in the general public, all of us, are helping to protect the NHS.
At the same time, the NHS is increasing supply by either a combination of pushing out in time things which can be postponed and increasing the critical bed care and particularly the ventilated bed capacity over the next weeks. This is going to be a close-run thing. We all know that. Anybody who looks around the world can see this is going to be difficult for every health system, but the measures that have been announced for the general public, which all of us have to do, if the NHS is to get through this without exceeding its capacity, and the work by the fantastic work by the NHS and my colleagues in the NHS to increase supply, that is the way that we will narrow this gap to the smallest possible gap over the next three weeks.
We do think that if everybody sticks to the staying in your household, and that’s absolutely essential, this gap will be probably managed well by the NHS. But we cannot guarantee that, and nobody who is sensible would wish to guarantee that. But we think that is what we are planning for and that is what we intend to happen.
Boris Johnson: (37:10)
Right. Well, thanks, everybody, very much. Thanks to our friends in the media for their questions. Thank you to you all for tuning in and watching this. I hope that it has been useful. We’ll be back tomorrow or there’ll be another update tomorrow here from Downing Street on the fight against coronavirus. But remember the essentials: We will beat this. We will beat it together. We will do it by protecting our NHS, staying at home, and that is how we will save lives.
Boris Johnson: (37:46)
Boris Johnson: (37:46)