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3 May 2020

6 weeks on: 8 things we've learned about coronavirus

Family sat around a table at home

The UK was put into lockdown on 23 March in an attempt to limit the spread of coronavirus. Since then, our daily lives have changed drastically and so has what we know about the virus.

It can be hard to keep up with the many twists and turns of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 40 days on, we take a look at some of the most important things we've learned and the things we still need to find out.

Coronavirus latest - get straight to the latest news and advice from our money, travel and health experts

1. The humble soap bar is your new best friend

Nothing has changed when it comes to the importance of keeping your hands clean, it's still one of the number one things you can do to protect yourself and others from contracting coronavirus.

But what we do know now is that there's no need to be picky with your soap. It's not necessary to hunt down 'antibacterial' soap - any soap will do, be it bar, liquid or even a substitute such as shower gel.

As for hand sanitiser, if you can't get hold of it don't panic, hand washing is still your best option.

If you're a key worker and you can't get to a sink as frequently as you would like, opt for a hand sanitiser that contains at least 60-95% alcohol.

And don't neglect the moisturising side, too, as increased hand washing and use of hand gel can be drying for your skin. Putting a rich moisturiser on overnight and moisturising after washing your hands should help.

Find out everything you need to know about hand sanitisers and soaps for tackling coronavirus.

2. Home test kits are hard to get right

Coronavirus test

A few weeks ago the government deemed the 3.5m antibody tests it had bought 'not reliable' enough for mass use, dashing the hope that home antibody tests that could quickly and easily tell you whether you'd recently had COVID-19 were just around the corner.

The only test available right now - for key workers and certain groups, such as those over the age of 65 or who have to go into work and are showing symptoms - is a swab test which is sent to a lab for analysis. This can tell if someone is currently infected with the virus, not if they have had it in the past.

No home self-test kits for COVID-19 are currently approved for use by the general public, so you should be cautious of any company claiming to sell them.

Find out more aboutCOVID-19 test kits and testing.

3. Most masks won't protect you from getting coronavirus

There is intense debate about the role of masks in protecting people against coronavirus.

What we do know is that the basic surgical masks you see around won't protect you from catching it, and that higher-grade medical masks are not appropriate for general public use. Using either incorrectly could actually increase your chances of getting infected.

However, some experts think mask wearing could play a role in reducing the spread of the disease - by protecting others from the wearer, rather than the other way round - as they may reduce the amount of particles you expel when talking, coughing or sneezing.

This, some health professionals believe, is particularly important to prevent asymptomatic people (who may be unaware that they have COVID-19) from spreading the virus.

The UK government doesn't currently advise the use of face masks for the public (although the Scottish Government suggests that it may be useful to cover your face in confined public spaces such as shops). Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested they may play a role in the transition out of lockdown.

Get the full story on face masks and coronavirus.

4. Bleach is good for surfaces, but not for drinking...

Not something we ever thought we'd have to spell out, but while bleach is a useful household cleaning aid in the fight against coronavirus, it's definitely not one to ingest.

While research is still ongoing regarding COVID-19, studies have found that similar coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS can persist on hand surfaces such as metal, glass or plastic for days. But they can be killed within one minute if cleaned and disinfected.

Regular soap and water is good for washing down surfaces, as it helps to inactivate the virus by dissolving its fatty (lipid) outer layer. But diluted household bleach solutions (hydrogen peroxide or sodium hypochlorite), alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol and certain anti-viral household disinfectants are also effective.

Bleach might be great at eliminating germs from your worktops, but contrary to US President Donald Trump's ill-advised suggestion, it's certainly not a potential 'cure' for coronavirus and ingesting it could have fatal results.

Find out how to clean your home effectively to protect against coronavirus, and get the facts on fake coronavirus medicines and dodgy health advice.

5. Virtual health care can do more than you think

If you have health concerns, don't be afraid to seek help. Healthcare providers, like many others, are finding innovative ways to care for patients while minimising social contact.

A surprising amount can be sorted using virtual appointments, whether by phone or video call, and you may even find it more convenient. So whether you have a niggling symptom you want to get checked out, or you've just stepped on your glasses, don't be afraid to pick up the phone and get the help you need.

  • Doctors are holding virtual and phone appointments where needed and can still prescribe prescriptions electronically to your chosen pharmacy. If you need to be seen in person, your GP will explain how to do that safely.
  • Hospital appointments If you have an appointment booked that needs to change, you'll receive a letter or phone call about what to do next. Some hospitals may be able to offer you a telephone or video appointment instead. Attend your appointment unless you hear otherwise, as the NHS is working hard to ensure key appointments still go ahead. Some hospital services that had been paused are now resuming, such as cancer treatments, some mental health services and fertility services.
  • Dentists All routine appointments have been cancelled, but dentists are able to provide advice over the phone, and prescribe antibiotics and analgesics, or refer you to an urgent care centre if required.
  • Opticians Virtual appointments are available, and in some situations opticians are able to prescribe glasses and contact lenses remotely.

It's important to note that you can and should still use the NHS emergency services if needed.

6. With COVID-19, sometimes the truth is even weirder than fiction

From holding your breath to drinking water and basking in the sun, the fake so-called coronavirus cures doing the rounds are rife right now.

But as reports surfaced that researchers in France plan to trial nicotine patches as a potential antidote, you'd be forgiven for getting confused over what's real and what isn't.

Yep, that's right. After a study at a major Paris hospital suggested that smokers are less likely to contract the virus, researchers are trying to understand if a substance in tobacco is the reason why. They are hoping to get approval to test nicotine patches on patients and frontline key workers.

Bear in mind that the researchers did emphasise they're not encouraging anyone to take up smoking as it has other serious health implications, and smokers who do contract coronavirus can be more likely to develop complications.

7. Where there's a crisis, there will always be scammers

Unfortunately, while this crisis has brought out the best in many, it also presents an opportunity for unscrupulous scammers to try and catch people out.

We've seen scammers send out fake government alerts and advice relating to coronavirus in an attempt to trick people out of money or personal information.

Stay safe with our video guide to spotting and stopping scams.

8. COVID-19 takes many forms

There's still a lot to learn about this extraordinary virus. Symptoms can range from non-existent to life-threatening and a variety of things in between.

During lockdown, we learned that loss of sense of smell can be a symptom, although this can also be a symptom of a common cold, and that the second week of the virus can be when symptoms worsen and you may need to seek help.

Now that we're entering hay fever season, understanding your symptoms can be even more important, as there is some overlap. See our guide to hay fever versus coronavirus for more.

What we don't yet know

How post-lockdown life will look

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he will set out a 'comprehensive plan' next week on how the UK will come out of lockdown and what our lives might look like.

While he said the UK was 'past the peak', it's important we don't risk a second spike in cases.

The plan is set to include details on how we get children back into school, how to restart the economy and how people can start to travel to work.

He hinted that face masks may be 'useful', in part to give people the confidence in going back to work.

Another key part of the post-lockdown strategy is likely to be contact tracing. This is intended to quickly identify anyone who may have been in contact with someone with coronavirus, and get them to isolate to limit the spread of the outbreak.

A phone system will be implemented alongside a free automated location-tracking mobile app. When a patient tells the app they have symptoms it will inform the NHS and perhaps trigger an alert to people they've been in contact with.

If you can get coronavirus more than once

When your body encounters a new virus it will produce an immune response to it in the form of antibodies. For some viruses this response means your body will maintain immunity and you won't catch the same disease again.

However, we don't yet know if having COVID-19 antibodies means you're immune and even if it does, how long that immunity lasts for.

How many people are asymptomatic?

Some patients with COVID-19 feel terrible, some just feel a little groggy, while others don't even realise they have it.

This means that many people could already be immune without realising. But, more worryingly, they could spread the virus without knowing.

The only way to know this is with an effective antibody test. It's important to try and establish how much of the population has potentially had COVID-19 without experiencing symptoms, as this will tell us more about how prevalent it is.

If there will be a vaccine and how long it will take

The UK has been testing vaccines since January and human trials began on 23 April.

Some tests will look at re-purposing drugs that are already approved to fight diseases, such as Ebola, to see if they work. This should take around six weeks.

Tests using manufactured antibodies will take around six months, while full vaccine tests will take around 18 months.

If we have a vaccine within 18 months, it would be the fastest humans have ever gone from seeing a brand-new pathogen to developing a vaccine for it.

Coronavirus: how to protect yourself and others - get the latest advice on what works and what doesn't