UK coronavirus worst-case scenario of 80% infection rate 'highly unlikely', says chief medical officer

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty, Boris Johnson and chief scientific adviser to the UK government Patrick Vallance at a Number 10 briefing (Getty)

Coronavirus could affect up to 80% of the UK population in a worst case scenario – but the real amount is likely to be much lower, England's chief medical officer has said.

Globally, more than 90,000 cases have been confirmed, with more than 3,000 deaths, while in the UK the number people diagnosed rose to 51 on Tuesday.

A government “battle plan” revealed at a No10 press conference stated that as much as 80% of the population could be infected in the coming months, but Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said the real amount is likely to be less than that.

"The proportion of the population who get infected is likely to be lower than that and probably a lot lower than that," he said.

The government published a 27-page battle plan on Tuesday (PA)

He said the old and ill are most at risk, with a "significant ramp-up" when people hit the age of 80.

But he added: "Even for the highest-risk group, the great majority of people will survive this. So if you look at the Chinese data, if you take the very oldest people, the great majority survive.

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"So it is important to stress that. And if you're talking about the low-risk groups the rate of mortality is well below 1%.

“So I think there's always a danger people think this has actually got a higher risk than it actually has for them personally."

It comes as the new government battle plan revealed up to one in five workers in the UK could be off sick during a coronavirus peak.

The 27-page document sets out the UK-wide response to Covid-19, with possible measures including the cancellation of non-urgent operations and retired NHS staff being called “back to duty”.

The document also emphasises the need for the public to take action, including washing their hands, checking in on relatives and neighbours and accepting that, in most cases, they will be told to stay at home if they have coronavirus.

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Launching the plan at a Downing Street press conference, Boris Johnson said he had “no doubt at all” that the “country is going to get through coronavirus, and get through it in good shape”.

The PM said it was “highly likely” the UK would see more widespread infection than at present.

But he added: “Let me be absolutely clear that for the overwhelming majority of people who contract the virus, this will be a mild disease from which they will speedily and fully recover, as we have already seen.”