The British government could ban mass gatherings, close schools and urge people to avoid public transport to halt the spread of coronavirus, health secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday.
He was speaking before the Department of Health and Social Care announced a further 12 people in England had tested positive for Covid-19. The total number of coronavirus cases in the UK rose to 36, as the first patient was reported in Scotland.
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A government "battle plan" to deal with the escalating outbreak in Britain and due to be unveiled this week is expected to say that a "war room" of scientists and other experts will be established, with each Whitehall department nominating a minister to lead on the effort. There will also be a public information campaign.
Boris Johnson, who will on Monday chair his first emergency ministerial meeting on the coronavirus outbreak, said on Sunday there were likely to be more cases in the UK but predicted the authorities would cope.
He said coronavirus posed a "significant challenge for our country. But we are well prepared, and the government and the NHS will stop at nothing to fight this virus". "This battle plan lays out in detail the measures we could use, if and when they are needed," he added.
Hancock told the BBC that newly retired doctors and nurses could be called back into the National Health Service to fill in for sick or otherwise absent colleagues.
Employers could also be encouraged to tell staff to work from home if the disease strengthens its hold.
Asked whether the government would consider locking down entire cities, Hancock said: "There's clearly a huge economic and social downside to that. But we don't take anything off the table at this stage, because you've got to make sure that you have all the tools available, if that is what's necessary."
However, he wanted "to minimise the social and economic disruption", stressing such drastic so-called social distancing measures were not yet imminent and emphasising the steps individuals can take to limit their chances of catching coronavirus.
"So long as people are washing hands and taking the precautions that are set out that is the right thing to do," said Hancock.
The UK authorities on Friday reported that a man living in Surrey was the first case of coronavirus in a patient who had not been abroad. On Sunday, the health department said another patient, this time from Essex, had contracted coronavirus without travelling. It added that among the 12 new cases were people from London, West Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire.
The Scottish government said later on Sunday that the first patient in the country had been diagnosed with coronavirus, in Tayside. Cases have previously been reported in Northern Ireland and Wales.
Hancock made it clear that the government had not given up hope that the coronavirus outbreak could be stopped from becoming pandemic.
However, should scientists tell the government that "it's going to go right through the world and therefore become endemic here", ministers would move into the delay phase "where we have to take judgments about how much action to take that might have downsides and costs in order to delay it", he added.
The government would "only look at things that epidemiologically, scientifically make sense", said Hancock.
The government's plan to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak is expected to provide for emergency legislation giving the public sector new powers to respond. For example, this could include allowing school class sizes to rise, to take account of sick teachers.
Hancock said such "enabling powers to help the public services to continue to operate effectively" would "be temporary, if they're taken, and they are essentially about how to deal with a very large-scale problem".
He also moved to reassure Britons that the NHS could cope, promising that an additional 5,000 critical care beds could be made available. The government plan is based on a 2011 document that was drawn up to respond to a flu pandemic.
Written by: Sarah Neville
© Financial Times