Up to 10,000 people in the UK may already have coronavirus and just don't know it, the government has warned.
The figure emerged as Boris Johnson Britain faced the "worst public health crisis for a generation " and demanded that any Brits who have mild symptoms that could be coronavirus must immediately self-isolate for a week, starting immediately.
But health officials believe that despite only 590 cases being discovered currently the real number of infected people is significantly higher.
The Chief Scientific Advisor said the number of suspected infections could mean that Britain was "four weeks behind Italy"
Modelling is understood to suggest that between 5000 to 10000 people could be infected.
This is based on the number of people who have developed Covid-19 through community transmission – ie without a direct link to someone who is known to have the virus.
At his press conference Mr Johnson said: “The true number of cases is higher, perhaps much higher, than the number of cases we’ve confirmed with tests.
"Families are going to lose a loved one before there time."
Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance said: “Currently we’re on a trajectory that looks as though it’s four weeks or so behind Italy, and some other countries in Europe.”
He added: “There are currently 590 cases that have been identified in the UK and there are more than 20 patients on intensive care units.
“If you calculate what that really means, in terms of the total number, it’s much more likely that we’ve got somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people infected at the moment.
“The same sorts of ratios will be true in other countries depending how much testing they’ve done.”
The guidance to self isolate applies to anyone who has a persistent cough or a temperature. Those self-isolating with mild symptoms are not advised to call 111.
Testing will change focus away from identifying people in their homes who are self isolating who may have the disease towards those are presenting at hospital with potentially serious symptoms.
Schools will be advised to cancel all foreign trips, and the elderly or anyone with underlying health conditions are advised to avoid cruise ships.
Today's guidance is a major ramping up of current advice, which advises people only to self-isolate if they have been in contact with an infected person or hotspot area or are told to by NHS 111.
It officially abandons Britain's primary focus on people who have imported the COVID-19 virus from overseas.
Family isolations are also set to begin within the next few weeks.
Today’s advice is that if you have symptoms, you should isolate for seven days.
Soon what will change to advising you and your whole household to isolate for 14 days.
Government officials hope it will push down the peak of the virus by 20%.
Major events are not yet being banned in England because scientific advice is it “will have little effect on the spread”, Boris Johnson said.
But he said that will be kept under review, because “there is also the issue of the burden such events can place on public services” – the reason they’re being cancelled in Scotland.
The government is also in the planning stage of considering cancelling non urgent surgery in the NHS to free up space if needed.
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