LONDON >> The United Kingdom plans to escalate its virus-fighting measures, its top health official said today, indicating that Britain is edging closer to tactics adopted by its European neighbors that so far the government has resisted.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Britain Conservative government is preparing the next phase of its action plan, which includes requiring the elderly to self-isolate, possibly for months. It’s also planning to announce emergency legislation this week that will give the government extra powers, such as quarantining people who are sick but refuse to isolate themselves.
Britain has been taking a different approach from other countries across Europe and around the world by declining to heavily restrict everyday activities or introduce “social distancing” measures. The U.K. strategy is based on the presumption that most people will eventually get the COVID-19 virus and severe measures to contain it are unlikely to work.
But as infections rise in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so has criticism of the government’s approach from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political opponents, scientists, and an increasingly worried population. Britain’s virus death toll rose to 35 todayfrom 21 a day earlier while confirmed infections rose by 232 to 1,372.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the majority recover. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Worldwide, some 156,000 people have been infected, over 5,800 have died and nearly 74,000 have recovered.
Hancock said the government will set out the emergency powers on Tuesday with a bill published two days later.
“We will do the right thing at the right time,” Hancock told the BBC. “We will publish the bill this week coming, we will change the law so that we take the power to be able to close mass gatherings if we need to.”
Hancock said authorities would be able to act if people are sick but refuse to self-isolate.
“We are going to take the powers to make sure we can quarantine people if they are a risk to public health, ” he told the BBC, adding that he doubted there would be much need because people were being responsible.
Hancock told Sky the government would in the “coming weeks” require people over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months.
“We also need to take steps to protect the vulnerable, and we set out in the plan how we would be prepared to do that and to advise the elderly and the vulnerable who are most at risk from this virus to protect themselves, to shield themselves, by self isolating,” Hancock told Sky News.
British supermarkets, meanwhile, pleaded with customers not to panic buy, after photos circulated on social media of empty store shelves.
“We would ask everyone to be be considerate in the way they shop,” a dozen supermarket copmanies said in an joint letter released by the British Retail Consortium. “We understand your concerns but buying more than is needed sometimes means that others will be left without. There is enough for everyone if we all work together.”