British public demands more information on coronavirus cases

In South Korea, those worried about new coronavirus cases can trace the commute and daily movements of infected people before their diagnosis by logging on to an app. In China too, you can track new cases as they are confirmed in real time and find out whether you have been on a flight or in a train with somebody who was later diagnosed.

In the UK, however, as confirmed cases jumped by 36 – the biggest surge so far – the Department of Health and Social Care announced on Twitter that it would no longer be tweeting their general locations, let alone their travelling habits, “due to the number of new cases”. Instead, it planned to put out a regional breakdown once a week, it said.

It went down badly. Twitter users accused the government of a lack of transparency. Some said they would now be pulling their children out of school because they did not know where the virus was lurking (even though children are rarely infected).

With anxiety at fever pitch in the UK, it probably was not a smart thing to do. It’s clear officials are worried about the workload. The fact that the number of UK cases has risen by 70% in a day is not surprising, given that we are fairly sure, from China’s experience, that each person with the virus will infect on average 2.5 others. The numbers will carry on rising, just as they are elsewhere in Europe, and many people will want to know where the hotspots are, on a daily basis.

In fact, most infections are likely to be indoors in families. You won’t contract the virus from somebody who walks past you in a shopping mall and probably not from the shop assistant either. It takes exposure to somebody’s coughs or speech within a range of about two metres for 15 minutes to get infected. Most people who get ill will be infected by friends and relations.

Q&A

How can I protect myself from the coronavirus outbreak?

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided it is used correctly.

Justin McCurry

Thank you for your feedback.

In South Korea, the apps and websites that developers have built to track people with the virus – using very detailed, if anonymised, information from the government about their movements – may not have the effect of reassuring the public. One of them, Coronamap.live, has a button labelled: “See whether I am safe.” But most countries now are giving out locations and maps are being drawn – even in the United States, where, according to President Trump, there were initially no cases at all.

It remains to be seen whether a weekly roundup will satisfy an increasingly unnerved British public.

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