Contain, delay, research, mitigate: the coronavirus stages explained

The UK moves into its second phase of emergency response plan

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson visits a laboratory in Bedford in March
(Image credit: Jack Hill/WPA/Getty Images)

The government has stepped up its response to the coronavirus, moving from the “contain” stage of its action plan to the “delay” stage.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a Cobra meeting this afternoon after the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic.

Nearly 130,000 cases of coronavirus have been recorded worldwide, with 590 in the UK, where ten people have died.

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Here are the four stages of the government’s emergency health response plan.


The contain phase was an attempt to prevent the nationwide spread of the virus, which causes the Covid-19 disease, by identifying those who are infected and treating them in hospital in isolation.

“New regulations introduced in England under public health legislation provide new powers for medical professionals, public health professionals and the police to allow them to detain and direct individuals in quarantined areas at risk or suspected of having the virus,” said the government’s action plan, published last week.

When the virus first reached the UK in January, all of the cases could be traced back to known overseas sources – but this is no longer the case, meaning the contain response is no longer sustainable.


The delay phase essentially means the authorities are accepting that a major outbreak is inevitable. However, an attempt will be made to slow the rate of infections, in order to place less strain on the NHS - which is much busier in the winter with illnesses such as seasonal flu - as well as protect the more vulnerable and buy time for drug and vaccine testing.

Publicity on good hygiene will be increased and anyone with symptoms will be urged to stay at home for the full duration of their illness.

Other actions to be considered include “population distancing strategies”, such as school closures, encouraging greater home working and reducing the number of large-scale gatherings.


Despite the order in which the phases are usually listed, the research part of the response to the new coronavirus is well under way, with scientists worldwide working to create a vaccine.

However, experts say the developing and testing any vaccine for use on the general population will take at least a year. In the meantime, many people will have contracted the virus and should acquire some natural immunity on recovery.

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The UK will enter the mitigate phase if transmission of the disease becomes established in the general population, says the government policy paper. In this phase, attempts to trace who infected people have come into contact with will be scaled down.

Instead, the focus will move to financial measures and other practical means to support the NHS, businesses and local authorities in dealing with the outbreak and its effects.

Emergency services, including fire and rescue units and the police, may have to concentrate their efforts on their “critical functions” - such as dealing with serious crimes and maintaining public order - if many officers and staff are off sick.

In a message directed at businesses, the government paper says: “Everyone will face increased pressures at work, as well as potentially their own personal illness or caring responsibilities. Supporting staff welfare will be critical to supporting an extended response.”

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