By Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) - Britain unveiled its "battle plan" to tackle the spread of coronavirus on Tuesday, warning that as many as a fifth of employees could be off work at the peak of the outbreak.
The United Kingdom has so far confirmed 51 cases of the virus, also known as COVID-19, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was "highly likely" the country would see a growing number of cases.
The government's plan includes possible school closures, home working and cancelling large-scale gatherings to slow the spread of the outbreak. Businesses could be given extra time to pay their taxes if they are facing short-term, cash flow issues.
"This is a national challenge ... I think we'll get through it in very good shape," Johnson told a news conference alongside England's Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and the government's Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance.
The government said its strategy was aimed at delaying the peak of the outbreak until the summer when the health service is under less seasonal pressure. This would also allow more time for the possible development of vaccines.
Options include discouraging unnecessary travel as part of what it called a "social distancing" strategy, delaying non-urgent healthcare, and drafting in retired healthworkers.
If staff shortages impact emergency services such as the police, they will focus on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order. Johnson said the army was also ready to provide back-up if needed.
If the outbreak worsens, the government said it would move from seeking containment and delay, to mitigating its impact.
'NOW IS THE TIME TO GET ORGANISED'
Health experts welcomed the plan.
"The key priority is to slow this (outbreak's) growth as much as possible," said Tom Solomon, an infections specialist at Liverpool University. "Even if large numbers of people will be affected, the National Health Service can cope much better if this number is spread out over many months, rather than over a few weeks."
Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, added: "The more time we have to prepare and the quicker we can respond to COVID-19, the more effective containment could be...Therefore now is the time to get organised, get educated, and get working."
The government will launch a public information campaign later this week, conducted from a "war room" in the Cabinet Office, setting out steps people can take to limit the infection's spread, such as regular hand washing.
Johnson's office said it would also publish legislation in the coming weeks to give the government powers necessary to tackle the outbreak.
Whitty said it was unlikely Britain would need to lock down individual cities, but all options would be open.
Finance minister Rishi Sunak has asked officials to draw up "further measures to support the public health response, businesses and the economy as needed" and will give an update when he presents his first budget to parliament on March 11.
Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said policymakers around the world were working on a "powerful and timely" response to the economic hit from coronavirus, which first surfaced in China and has spread to 77 countries.
"It is reasonable to expect a response that reflects a combination of fiscal measures and central bank initiative."
(Additional reporting by Kate Holton, Michael Holden, William James and Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich)