Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Sunday the coronavirus outbreak was “accelerating”, as fears grew that the crisis in Britain was following the same path as the one devastating Italy. Johnson said the health service could be “overwhelmed” as health department figures showed that 233 people died from COVID-19 in the UK, with the number of those testing positive for the virus standing at 5,018.
Britain’s death toll now mirrors the figure that Rome declared just over two weeks ago, on March 7, before Italy became the world’s most affected country. On Sunday, Italy said that 4,825 people had died from the virus there, a third of the world’s total. The UK figure rose by at least 10 on Sunday, with announcements of further deaths in Scotland and Wales. An updated UK-wide figure was expected later.
“The numbers are very stark, and they are accelerating,” Johnson said in a statement ahead of a planned press briefing later in the day. “We are only a matter of weeks — two or three — behind Italy. The Italians have a superb health care system. And yet their doctors and nurses have been completely overwhelmed by the demand.”
Johnson’s warning came amid calls for police to enforce warnings to people to socially distance from each other.
On Friday, Downing Street announced stronger measures to combat the spread, including the closing of bars, pubs and restaurants.
Ministers have outlined emergency legislation to give police, public health and immigration officers extra powers to contain the outbreak, expected to come into force this week. Reports over the weekend of Britons flocking to cafes, beaches, parks and bars fuelled expectations that extra powers being imposed were now inevitable.
In London, the worst affected city, Mayor Sadiq Khan told the BBC police could have to enforce social distancing.
“If it is the case that people continue to act in a way that’s leading to this disease spreading, then those sorts of things will have to be considered.”
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, at a Sunday press briefing, criticised pubs which opened over the weekend despite being warned not to, claiming they “put lives at risk”. “Close now. We’ll have emergency powers within days to force you to close and we will use these powers if we have to,” she said.
There were also signs of a political fallout. Downing Street denied a “highly defamatory” Sunday Times newspaper story that Johnson’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, had initially argued against strict measures to contain the virus, in an argument summed up as “if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.
Mounting concerns came as authorities in the UK told 1.5 million people most at risk to stay at home for 12 weeks.
The government advised vulnerable people such as those with bone or blood cancers to shield themselves from the virus, by confining themselves at home. “People should stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives,” said Housing secretary Robert Jenrick.
He said the government would get protective gear to NHS staff on the frontline “as soon as possible” amid fears the virus could be spreading due to a lack of equipment for medics. In a further sign of growing concern, environmental and heritage charity the National Trust said it would close all of its parks and gardens.
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