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Schools may need to close and mass gatherings including football matches could be cancelled if and when coronavirus gets worse, the health secretary has said.
Matt Hancock said scientists believe it is now “inevitable” that Covid-19 will become endemic in the UK – and has refused to rule out the possibility that entire cities could be placed under lockdown.
On emulating containment measures seen in China at the outbreak of the virus, Hancock told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme: “There is clearly a huge economic and social downside to that.
“But we don’t take anything off the table at this stage because you have to make sure you have all the tools available if that is what is necessary.”
The government is working on a battle plan to deal with the virus which it will publish this week and is also looking at what emergency powers it may need to take.
In the worst-case scenario this could mean closing schools and banning mass gatherings.
Hancock also suggested he may have to ask doctors and nurses to come out of retirement to help with the fight against the disease, also known as Covid-19.
He told Marr: “It may be necessary - and I’m not saying any of these things are decisions we have taken but it means we don’t rule them out - it may be necessary for instance to close some schools.
“But right now people should not be closing schools if there isn’t a positive case and they don’t have advice from Public Health England.
“And other so-called population distancing measures.”
Asked about France’s approach - banning all indoor public gatherings of more than 5,000 people, Hancock said: “We are looking at all those sorts of things, we do not rule them out but there is also a problem if you make decisions like that too early.
“The top priority is to keep the public safe but we also want to minimise the economic and social consequences.”
Marr then pressed Hancock on whether the government could “ban” football matches or big concerts and dissuade people from using public transport.
The health secretary replied: “We’re looking at all options, including those.
“But we will only look at things that epidemiologically, scientifically make sense.”
Hancock stressed everyone had a duty to wash their hands, “catch” their coughs and sneezes, and follow public health advice and instructions to self isolate if necessary.
Boris Johnson will chair a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee on coronavirus on Monday.
Hancock stressed that the government is currently trying to “contain” the spread of the virus, but once it becomes endemic the government will have to decide how to “delay” it’s growth, and if it came to it the government would then have to take steps to mitigate the damage.
There are currently 23 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK, with experts warning that more patients are likely to test positive as screening of those with symptoms continues.
Three more patients in England tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday, including a staff member at an infant school in Berkshire.
Labour called on Hancock to make a statement in the Commons on the emergency measures on Monday.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “There are growing concerns about our part-time prime minister’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and serious questions about capacity in our overstretched NHS.
“The health secretary should come to the Commons on Monday to explain fully the emergency powers he is planning to bring in, and to update MPs on the government’s response so that we can properly scrutinise it.”