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Emergency laws are being drawn up to ban “mass gatherings” in the UK from next week in a shock move to help fight the coronavirus pandemic.
It is a rapid U-turn on the position outlined just 24 hours ago by Boris Johnson and the UK’s two most senior medical and scientific advisers: that there was no need to consider such a move and that people would grow tired of “draconian” measures if they were introduced too early in the fight against Covid-19.
A Whitehall source told the PA news agency on Friday: “Ministers are working with the chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer on our plan to stop various types of public event, including mass gatherings, beginning next week.
“We are also talking to businesses and other bodies about the timing of moving towards much more widespread working from home.
“There are many complex considerations to make all these measures as effective as possible. We will make the right decisions at the right time based on the best scientific evidence.”
Some 11 people in the UK have so far died of the disease, with 798 confirmed infections – a jump of more than 200 since yesterday.
The news comes at the end of a day during which elections, political campaigning and a flood of major UK sporting events including the London Marathon were postponed due to fears about the virus spreading – something chief medical officer Dr Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance had said just hours earlier was not yet necessary.
At the time, Johnson faced sharp criticism, including from former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, for not taking more drastic action. The four-day Cheltenham Festival, attended by tens of thousands of people each day, went ahead this week, prompting alarm from some that so many would be in close contact for prolonged periods of time.
The virus can be caught by standing within two metres of an infected person for 15 minutes, as well as by droplets being transmitted through sneezing or coughing onto shared surfaces.
Up to 10,000 people in the UK may already have it, Johnson and his team admitted yesterday.
The Whitehall source told PA there were concerns about “the burden large events put on public services – including the health service and the police”.
“Officials are working with industry bodies to identify how to support businesses that will be affected by this decision,” they added.
“We have drafted emergency legislation to give the government the powers it needs to deal with coronavirus, including powers to stop mass gatherings and compensate organisations.
“We will publish this legislation next week.”
Earlier on Friday the World Health Organisation said Europe had now become the epicentre of the pandemic and Donald Trump indicated he might add the UK to a list of countries facing a US travel ban.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.