The rising number of coronavirus cases in Britain isn’t a surprise: the shocking thing would be if the total didn’t go up. But the increase comes alongside something else.

This is likely to be the moment that what is called “community transmission” starts occurring.

The virus is already likely to be spreading from person to person in parts of the country, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer for England, Chris Whitty, says today.

That means people have started to become infected without having any link to cases abroad — just as happens all the time with ordinary colds and the flu. “I don’t think it is a large amount,” he adds.

But as he warns, a COVID-19 epidemic is now “highly likely” in this country. So we need to prepare to deal with it.

It’s an old rule of politics that laws made in a hurry turn out to be bad ones, but in this case emergency legislation about to be introduced by the Government is absolutely essential and should have Parliament’s full support.

As officials warned yesterday, up to a fifth of people may be off sick at any one time. Travel may become harder. Food supplies will be under greater pressure. Public services will be under strain, and not just the NHS.

So we need to allow things such as video links in court cases to limit the risk of infection; new police powers; changes in schools such as larger class sizes; and a reduction in the red tape required to register a death.

Obviously many of these dramatic changes will be short term. But one thing history teaches us is that big, sudden changes in the way we live can have an unexpected long-term effect.

If more people start working from home, for instance, the habit may stick. Employers who cut back on business travel now may make some of the shift permanent.

We can’t yet know the full effect of the virus. But Britain is about to find out. 

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