Health secretary says older people would be ‘shielded for their own protection’
People over 70 will soon be asked to stay at home for up to four months to protect themselves from the risk of contracting coronavirus, the UK health secretary, Matt Hancock, has said.
Ministers are also not ruling out ordering the closure of all bars, restaurants and non-essential shops as the coronavirus pandemic escalates.
Such drastic measures would go beyond what the government anticipated in its coronavirus action plan, but countries such as France have ordered closures on this scale and Hancock said the government would do whatever was necessary to protect life.
Hancock confirmed the government will soon tell people over 70 that they will need to self-isolate at home for up to four months to protect themselves from the disease – but his terminology caused some confusion, leading Scottish officials to stress that elderly people would not be asked to avoid all contact with other people.
In an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Hancock said asking the over-70s to stay self-isolated would be “a very big ask”, but that it was part of the government’s action plan because it would be necessary to protect them. He said this would be announced in the coming weeks.
Jason Leitch, the national clinical director for the Scottish government, which is working with the Westminster government on a UK-wide coronavirus strategy, subsequently said on Twitter there was no plan to ask the over-70s to “completely socially isolate” and that the proposal for older people would be to minimise social contact, not end it.
In a tweet, he said: “We are working on guidance for the over-70s to be asked to REDUCE social contact for their safety. So no bingo, no pubs … BUT family visits and neighbours etc.”
The term self-isolation has been used by health officials to refer to the very strict isolation routine supposed to be followed by people with coronavirus, but on Sunday morning Hancock seemed to be using it in the looser sense that has become commonplace – referring to staying at home and minimising social interaction.
The health department said guidelines saying exactly what the new advice for the over-70s would mean in practice would be published in due course.
In the Marr interview, Hancock was asked if the government would follow countries such as France and Spain, where bars, restaurants and shops have been closed, apart from supermarkets and pharmacies.
Hancock replied: “We have not ruled that out. We will do what is necessary. Because the top priority is to protect life, and you do that by protecting the vulnerable, and by protecting the NHS. That is the goal.”
Asked about the state of the NHS, Hancock said hospitals would need more beds and that one solution would be to cancel operations and to convert operating theatres used for non-urgent procedures such as knee operations into wards for coronavirus patients. Operating theatres were suitable because they had oxygen supplies, he said.
He also said he was looking at converting hotels, “many of which are currently empty”, into temporary hospitals.
And he said the government would be urging manufacturers to produce more ventilators. He said the NHS already had about 5,000 ventilators, which were needed for people who get severely ill through coronavirus, but he said the country needed “many times more than that”.
He said that, although they were complicated pieces of machinery, they were not so complex that it was impossible for advanced manufacturers to switch to producing them, and he said that in a conference call, scheduled for Monday, Boris Johnson would be urging manufacturing companies to do just this.
“We are saying: you produce a ventilator, then we will buy it. No number is too high,” Hancock said.
“The prime minister is hosting a conference call … to say very clearly to the nation’s manufacturers: ventilators are the thing that we are going to need, and frankly, right across the world, the demand for them is incredibly high, so it is not possible to produce too many. So anybody who can should turn production and their engineering minds over to the production of ventilators.”
Cobra, the government’s emergency committee, will meet again on Monday to discuss the coronavirus pandemic, and on Tuesday the government will announce details of the emergency legislation it plans to pass to give it new powers it may need as the crisis escalate, Hancock said.
He said the bill had been amended to take in suggestions made by the Labour party, and that it would be published on Thursday. It is due to go through the Commons the following week.
Among other provisions, the bill will give the government the power to quarantine people deemed a threat to public health, Hancock said. He added: “I doubt that actually we will need to use it much, because people are being very responsible.”
Hancock also confirmed the government may ban gatherings of more than 500 people – a move that is already being introduced in Scotland from Monday.
In recent days, the government has faced growing criticism for not matching some of the more stringent public health measures taken in other European countries, where schools have been closed, public gatherings banned and entry restrictions imposed.
Hancock defended the UK’s response. He said it was doing more coronavirus testing than in any country apart from China, South Korea, and Italy, where the outbreak has been more severe.
And he rejected claims that the UK measures were out of step with what was happening elsewhere.
“We are similar to many countries,” he claimed. “For instance, we are very similar to the approach being taken in Germany and Australia and others.
“It is about making sure you do the right thing at the right time. We are prepared to take, if we need to, all the sorts of measures [discussed], but we will do it based on the science.”
He said that “in the coming days” the government would publish details of the modelling it was using when determining its policy. He also said he was confident food supplies would continue.
He was also relatively dismissive of an open letter signed by more than 300 scientists from UK universities criticising the government’s approach. In the letter, the group, most of whom are not epidemiologists but instead specialists in subjects like maths, call for “social distancing” measures to be introduced immediately, and argue that aiming for “herd immunity” is not viable.
Asked about the letter, Hancock said: “What we will do is listen to all the credible scientists. What we will not do is deviate from having a plan that is based on the best scientific advice.”
Hancock also argued that the letter was misstating government policy in suggesting that it wanted to build up herd immunity to coronavirus among the population at large.
“Herd immunity is not our goal or policy, it’s a scientific concept”, he said. “Our policy is to protect lives and to beat this virus.”