Government orders end to 'non-essential contact' with others as coronavirus crisis deepens

Written by Kevin Schofield and Alain Tolhurst on 17 March 2020 in News
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Chancellor Rishi Sunak to set out economic measures this afternoon

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Boris Johnson has called on British people to end all "non-essential contact" with others, cancel unnecessary travel and consider working from home as the government set out wide-ranging measures in an attempt to tackle the coronavirus.

In a press conference yesterday evening, a grim-faced prime minister said people should avoid places like pubs, restaurants and theatres for the foreseeable future to avoid spreading the deadly disease.

Johnson said that those with the symptoms of the illness – a persistent cough and temperature above 37 degrees – must self-isolate at home with their families for 14 days.


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And he said that in particular, people over 70, pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions should try to avoid "social contact" with others for the next 12 weeks, starting from this weekend.

His comments, delivered at a Downing Street press conference, marked a significant stepping up of the government's attempts to control the outbreak.

And they came as chief medical officer Chris Whitty admitted the outbreak could last until after the summer as he said he was confident the NHS "will rise to this challenge".

The prime minister said: "What we're announcing today is a very substantial change in the way that we want people to live their lives. I can't remember anything like it in my lifetime. I don't think there's been anything like it in peace time.

"It is a very considerable psychological change that we're asking the nation to do, but I've absolutely no doubt that we can do it together and everybody understands the need to do it."

Johnson spoke out after it was confirmed that the number of people in the UK testing positive for the virus had risen to 1,543, up from 1,372 on Sunday. The number of those who have died from the disease has also risen from 35 to 53.

The prime minister said the most up-to-date data suggested that the UK was now "approaching the fast growth part of the upward curve" of the outbreak, and without tougher measures to control it, the NHS faced being overwhelmed.

Setting out the government's plans, he said: "First we need to ask you to ensure that if you or anyone in your household has one of those two symptoms then you should stay at home for 14 days

"That means that if possible you should not go out, even to buy food or essentials, other than for exercise and in that case at a safe distance from others.”

"And even if you don’t have symptoms, and if no one in your household has symptoms, there is more that we need you to do now.

"So second, now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others, and to stop all unnecessary travel. We need people to start working from home where they possibly can - and you should avoid pubs, clubs theatres and other such social venues.”

"Now this advice about avoiding all unnecessary social contact is particularly important for people over 70, for pregnant women, and for those with some health conditions.

"And if you ask ‘why are we doing this now, why not earlier or later, why bring in this very draconian measure’, the answer is this. We are asking people to do something that is difficult and disruptive of their lives, and the right moment, as we have always said, is to do it when it is most effective, when we think it can make the biggest difference to slowing the spread of the disease, reducing the number of victims, reducing the number of fatalities."

"And as we take these steps we should be focusing on the most vulnerable, so third, in a few days’ time – by this coming weekend – it will be necessary to go further and ensure those with the most serious health conditions are largely shielded from social contact for around 12 weeks."

The PM said London appeared to be ahead of the rest of the country in terms of the virus's progress, and confirmed that the government was now "moving emphatically away from" allowing mass gatherings of people.

Chris Whitty said the crisis would last for "a minimum of weeks to months and, depending on how it goes, maybe longer".

He said: "The next few weeks and months are going to be extraordinarily difficult for the NHS in all four nations.

"We know that our colleagues will rise to this challenge, but we know it is going to be very hard indeed, but we have enormous faith in them.”

Economic response

Later today, chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to join Johnson at his latest daily press conference on the outbreak, with The Times reporting he has now begun work on a "significant new bailout" for affected businesses.

Sunak said: "We are doing everything we can to keep this country, and our people, healthy and financially secure. As I said at Budget we will do what is needed to support the economy and business, and are working rapidly to provide more support."

At the Budget, Sunak set out £12bn worth of measures to shore up public services and support individuals and businesses affected by the outbreak, but further steps are expected today.

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Kevin Schofield and Alain Tolhurst
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Kevin Schofield is editor and Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter for CSW's sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.

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