Boris Johnson is today facing mounting pressure for a dramatic escalation of the government’s coronavirus response – as ministers struggled to explain why there has yet to be a ban on big gatherings and a school shutdown.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended the UK’s limited action so far, saying it was ‘science led’ and accusing other countries of ‘populist’ measures that ‘don’t have the right impact’.
But he conceded that Britain will soon need the same tough steps, as it was only a ‘little behind’ neighbours such as France and Germany in the progress of the disease.
Fears over the impact of the coronavirus were laid bare today in a leaked Public Health England (PHE) briefing warning that a ‘worst case’ scenario could see an epidemic last until spring next year, and mean 7.9million needing hospital treatment.
France has imposed controls on its border with Germany, and transport restrictions are in force across much of Europe, with schools, pubs and restaurants closed. Austria is banning gatherings of more than five people. The US has barred all travellers from Europe.
But beyond urging those with a cough or a fever to self-isolate, the UK authorities have held off the most draconian steps, saying the timing must be right for them to be effective.
The British public appears to be taking matters into their own hands today, with commuter trains unusually empty as workers opt to stay at home. Mr Shapps said train passengers were down by a fifth last week, as airlines demanded a bailout.
Amid rising criticism, Mr Johnson is to chair another Cobra emergency meeting later, and daily press briefings will be staged to reassure the public everything possible is being done.
Ministers have appealed for major manfacturers to overhaul their factories to produce ventilators to help those who are most at risk from the illness.
Under tough new powers, people who refuse to go into quarantine face being detained or slapped with a fine of up to £1,000.
Police are able to use ‘reasonable force’ to constrain those who could infect others.