Health Secretary Matt Hancock says over-70s could be asked to self-isolate in 'coming weeks' to 'shield' themselves from coronavirus

Stephanie Cockroft
Health Secretary Matt Hancock arrives for a meeting of the Government's emergency committee Cobra to discuss coronavirus on Monday: PA

The Health Secretary has said the Government could ask the over-70s to self isolate for several months to "shield" themselves from coronavirus as he said the UK was facing the "biggest health emergency in a generation".

Matt Hancock said the UK's action plan on tackling Covid-19 asks older people to self-isolate for up to four months for their own "self-protection".

He said the Government expected to announce the move in the "coming weeks", but reiterated that the advice was not yet being put in place because they do not want to announce the measure "too soon".

It came after he made a "call to arms" as he announced a drive to "build the ventilators and other equipment the NHS will need" to treat patients during the outbreak.

Asked if asking those aged over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months was in the Government’s plan, he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday: “That is in the action plan, yes.

"And we will be setting it out with more detail when it is the right time to do so because we absolutely appreciate that it is a very big ask of the elderly and the vulnerable, and it’s for their own self-protection.”

Pressed on when the measure will be introduced, he said: “Certainly in the coming weeks, absolutely.”

Acknowledging it was a "very big ask", he added: “The measures that we’re looking at taking are very, very significant and they will disrupt the ordinary lives of almost everybody in the country in order to tackle this virus.”

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Hancock warned of an unprecedented "test" for our nation but said the Government had a "clear action plan, listening to the best science".

He said: “Our generation has never been tested like this. Our grandparents were, during the Second World War, when our cities were bombed during the Blitz.

“Despite the pounding every night, the rationing, the loss of life, they pulled together in one gigantic national effort.

Empty shelves of pasta are seen at a supermarket in London (Reuters)

“Today our generation is facing its own test, fighting a very real and new disease.”

He also spoke about taking steps in the "near future" to protect those most at risk from the virus, including the elderly and medically vulnerable.

Experts on the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have set out the need for extra action to slow the spread of the disease. Those measures will include steps to shield the elderly and those with existing health problems from the virus by telling them to stay in their houses or care homes.

There could also be a shift to household isolation rather than individual self-isolation.

On Monday, the Prime Minister will also urge manufacturers to join a “national effort” to produce equipment for the NHS.

Engineers have already been asked to draw up plans to quickly produce more ventilators in the UK amid concerns that critical care facilities will come under intense pressure as the Covid-19 crisis intensifies.

Mr Hancock wrote: "We are better equipped thanks to the NHS than most other countries, but we will need many more.

"We now need manufacturers to turn their production lines to make ventilators. We cannot make too many."

Mr Hancock also distanced the Government from the controversial "herd immunity" concept, calling it a "scientific concept, not a goal or a strategy" that is "not a part" of the UK's "plan".

On Friday, the UK’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said it is hoped the Government’s approach to tackling coronavirus would create a “herd immunity” to the disease .

World Health Organisation spokeswoman Margaret Harris later called the approach into question .

Boris Johnson will make a personal plea to manufacturers (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Elsewhere, the Government is also in talks with private hospitals about the possibility of taking over beds in a further sign of the pressures that will face the health service at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak.​

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “We need every part of society and every industry to ask what they can do to help the effort.”​

The increase in activity came after 10 more patients died in England after testing positive for Covid-19. A number of the patients, who were over 60, had underlying health conditions.

There have been 1,140 positive tests for coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Saturday, up from 798 at the same time on Friday. The UK death toll now stands at 21, with 20 in England and one in Scotland.

On Saturday, the US government also imposed a travel ban on the UK and Ireland in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

At a press conference on Saturday, President Donald Trump – who the White House says has tested negative for the virus – announced the extension of his travel restrictions to cover the UK and Ireland. The changes will come in at midnight on Monday night in the eastern US.

Downing Street said Mr Johnson and the president spoke on Saturday evening and “the Prime Minister set out the science-led approach the UK is taking”.

Meanwhile, Whitehall sources have already indicated that mass gatherings could be banned from next weekend .

Other measures, including school closures, have also been considered as an option to combat the spread of the virus.

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, who has attended the Cobra meetings formulating the UK’s response, suggested that schools would need to be closed for four months if that step was taken.

“Schools will not be closed immediately but schools and parents should prepare because when they do they will close for at least 16 weeks,” she warned.​​