LONDON (Reuters) - The coronavirus outbreak at the heart of the UK government spread on Monday with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, self-isolating with symptoms just days after the British leader himself tested positive.
Johnson, who announced on Friday that he was infected with the virus but would continue to lead the government’s response to the outbreak, chaired a meeting on Monday from self-isolation in Downing Street.
“The prime minister chaired the 9.15 meeting and was full of vigor and giving us the leadership we need, and we’re a united cabinet team in terms of getting the country through this crisis,” foreign minister Dominic Raab said at a news conference.
A Downing Street spokesman said Cummings, one of the most powerful men in the government, had developed symptoms of COVID-19 over the weekend and was staying at home.
The adviser was seen sprinting out of Downing Street on Friday, shortly after Johnson revealed he had tested positive. The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment on his rapid departure.
The United Kingdom has reported 1,408 deaths from the novel coronavirus and a total of 22,141 confirmed cases.
The government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said hospital admissions were stable at around 1,000 per day, and he did not expect the daily increase to reach significantly higher numbers.
“It’s quite important, it tells you that actually this is a bit more stable than it has been,” he said.
With the peak of the epidemic in Britain expected to come in two or three weeks and the state-funded National Health Service (NHS) at risk of being overwhelmed, temporary field hospitals are under construction in venues ranging from rugby stadiums to conference centers.
Britain initially took a soft approach to containing the spread of the disease compared to Italy and France, but Johnson imposed stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million people could die.
Vallance presented charts at the Monday news conference showing that rail, bus and tube usage had all fallen to less than a quarter of their normal levels.
This, he said, had reduced the number of people that each carrier of the virus was expected to infect, although it would take two or three weeks before that was reflected in hospital admissions.
Raab said hundreds of thousands of Britons in countries all over the world were trying to come home, and the government would spend 75 million pounds ($93 million) to get stranded travelers back to Britain.
The government has made a new arrangement with British Airways, easyJet, Virgin, Jet2 and Titan under which the airlines will offer alternative bookings where routes are canceled, Raab said.
Johnson was the first leader of a major world power to announce he had tested positive for the virus. His health minister, Matt Hancock, also tested positive and the government’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, is self-isolating after reporting symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
The Downing Street spokesman said Johnson was using video conferencing facilities at number 11 Downing Street, the official residence of the finance minister which is next door to his own, to conduct meetings.
The spokesman was not able to confirm whether Cummings was also still working, but said the adviser had not been tested for the virus and was not expected to be.
Additional reporting by William James, Paul Sandle, Costas Pitas, Kylie MacLellan and Elizabeth Howcroft, writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Estelle Shirbon; editing by Stephen Addison