Coronavirus: UK could be put on lockdown if Britons ignore advice, suggests cabinet minister

Greg Heffer, political reporter

The UK could be put on lockdown if Britons continue to ignore advice aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus, a cabinet minister has suggested.

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick warned that asking people to stay at home in an attempt to suppress the number of COVID-19 cases was not "a game", as he refused to rule out tougher action.

The government on Friday closed cafes, pubs, bars, restaurants and gyms for the foreseeable future as the spread of coronavirus continues to accelerate.

Britons are being asked to not go out and to reduce social interaction with others, in order to prevent the NHS becoming overburdened and to save the lives of the elderly and most vulnerable.

But the UK has not yet followed the example of France, which is now requiring citizens to carry official paperwork in order to leave their homes.

Asked whether Britain could follow other European countries in enforcing an official lockdown, Mr Jenrick told Sky News' Sophy Ridge on Sunday show: "We don't want to go down that route.

"We want to live in a free society where we can continue to go about activities while continuing to follow the medical advice.

"But this isn't a game, this is very serious; People need to follow that advice.

"We have now closed the pubs, the restaurants, the clubs, the indoor gyms and leisure activities, and we want people now to follow that advice and stay at home wherever possible.

"If people don't follow that advice, we'll clearly have to consider other options.

"But none of us want to go down that route."

Mr Jenrick stressed most people could continue to go out for walks, enjoy the countryside and take children to playgrounds, but warned them to "stay a couple of metres away from others".

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned the number of UK coronavirus cases is "stark" and "accelerating".

He told adults the best present they can give their mother for Mother's Day on Sunday is to stay away.

Some 1.5 million people with specific health conditions who have been identified as being most at risk to coronavirus are being written to by the government to ask them to stay at home.

This group of people are being asked to remain at home at all times and avoid any face-to-face contact for at least 12 weeks.

Mr Jenrick clarified those people can continue to live with those they are currently living with, although the government is asking family members of the most vulnerable to limit the time spent in shared spaces.

"We're not expecting families to be broken up as a result of this," the cabinet minister said.

He also vowed the government would be doing "whatever it takes" to support these people, including helping with the supply of food and medicines.

"We want you to know that you might be staying at home for a long period of time but you will not be alone," he said.

In order to help those who are unable to work or whose businesses are affected by the coronavirus outbreak, the government has introduced an "unprecedented" package of economic help.

Mr Jenrick hinted more action could be taken to help those who are self-employed, following criticism they have been left unsupported by the government.

"It is more complicated for the self-employed than it is for employees...but if we need to do more, we will do it and the chancellor is keeping this under review," he said.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has written to the prime minister to demand more help for the self-employed and a rise in the level of statutory sick pay and welfare payments.

Speaking to Sophy Ridge on Sunday, he also claimed the coronavirus crisis "exposes the problems within the NHS".

He added: "It does indicate just how damaged our NHS has been by the loss of beds over the last 10 years."

The government has struck a deal with private hospitals in order to secure 8,000 beds across England, nearly 1,200 ventilators and almost 20,000 staff.

Ex-health secretary and former Conservative leadership contender Jeremy Hunt, who is now the chair of the House of Commons health committee, said: "I do think the NHS needs more resources but I think we also have to recognise this is a different debate.

"This is a debate about how you cope with a pandemic that can blow over any healthcare system anywhere in the world."