What is the coronavirus?

Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation
17 March 2020
Next review due March 2023

This is an updated version of an article first published on 24 January. We’re regularly updating this article.

The current outbreak of coronavirus (officially known as COVID-19) has been dominating the headlines in the past few weeks. Understandably, you may feel worried or concerned about how the situation is unfolding in the UK. But it's important to remember that the UK government and health authorities are taking coordinated steps to limit the spread of the virus, and that they have been planning intensely for the current outbreak. Getting reliable, accurate information is important, which is where this article can help. Here I'll explain what the coronavirus is and how the UK is responding.

What is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses are a group of viruses that cause illnesses such as the common cold, to more severe conditions such as pneumonia, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory syndrome (SARS). The COVID-19 strain of coronavirus is new and not previously known.

What causes coronavirus?

Coronavirus spreads from person to person but it’s not yet known exactly how this happens. Similar viruses spread through the air, in droplets when someone coughs.

What are the symptoms?

The main symptoms of this coronavirus include:

  • respiratory symptoms (like those you have with a cold)
  • fever (high temperature of 38.7C/100F or above)
  • new continuous cough
  • shortness of breath
  • breathing difficulties

In more severe cases the virus can cause pneumonia, SARS (a severe form of pneumonia), kidney failure and death. It’s important to note though that many cases so far seem to have been mild. The most serious cases seem to have happened in people with pre-existing health conditions.

Which countries are affected?

Cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in a number of countries around the world. Cases are being confirmed on an ongoing basis, with the World Health Organization (WHO) publishing situation reports daily which show the countries that are affected.

What’s happening in the UK?

The number of people who have been tested for coronavirus in the UK, and the number of confirmed cases, is being kept updated on the website by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE). The DHSC and PHE are working closely with the World Health Organization (WHO) to monitor the situation. The UK government has also released a coronavirus action plan.

Encouragingly, the UK is one of the first countries outside of China that has a specific diagnostic test for the virus. The DHSC has also produced clinical guidance on the virus, around detecting and diagnosing it.

‘High’ risk

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus as a pandemic (global outbreak of a disease). The UK Chief Medical Officers have raised the risk level to high in the UK.

What to do if you have symptoms

If you have a cough or a high temperature, then you need to stay at home and self-isolate for seven days.

If you live with other people, then everyone in the household will need to stay at home for 14 days from the day you first got symptoms. If someone then develops symptoms, they will need to stay at home for seven days from the day the symptoms first appeared – regardless of where they are in the 14-day period.

You don’t need to contact NHS 111 to tell them you are doing this. And don’t go to your GP practice, hospital or pharmacy. If you can’t manage your symptoms, feel worse or symptoms don’t improve after seven days then use the 111 Coronavirus Service.

Details on exactly what you need to do can be found on the page.

Travel information

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office have advised against people from the UK travelling to anywhere in the world unless it’s absolutely essential. This applies immediately and will be in place for at least 30 days. You may need to cancel or change travel arrangements.

If you are abroad, you will need to follow the local authority’s guidance who are responsible for your safety and security. Contact your airline, travel company and insurance provider to follow updates on if it’s possible to return from abroad.

How should I protect myself?

Hygiene measures

To prevent the spread of germs, carry out basic hygiene measures, which include the following.

  • Wash your hands more often, for at least 20 seconds, using running water and soap. Use an alcohol-based gel if water and soap isn’t available.
  • Cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or tissue – not your hand. Put the tissue immediately in the bin and wash your hands.
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth if you’re hands aren’t clean.
  • Clean surfaces in the household that are touched often.
  • Stay away from unwell people.

Social distancing

We should all try and take social distancing measures as much as we can. This means stopping non-essential contact with others. Try to avoid public transport and travel outside of rush hour if you can. Work from home if you’re able to do so. Steer clear of going out to social places such as pubs, cinemas and restaurants. Use technology to keep in touch with friends and family rather than meeting with them in person. If you need to contact your GP – phone them rather than going to the surgery. Everyone should take these measures as much as possible. They are particularly important for people over 70 or who have an underlying health condition or are pregnant.

Look after yourself

It’s understandable that you may feel worried at this time, and social distancing can be boring and frustrating. But it’s important that you take care of yourself and do what you can to prevent unhealthy habits from settling in. Make sure you eat healthily and do things you enjoy such as reading, cooking or gardening. Get some exercise either at home or you can go outside as long as you keep a two-metre distance from others. Get fresh air into your house by opening a window and letting some natural sunlight in.


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Luke James
Dr Luke James
Group Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director of Healthcare Transformation

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