The health secretary has told Sky News that over-70s will be asked to self-isolate “in the coming weeks” to try to protect them from coronavirus – and it could potentially last for months.
Matt Hancock also told the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme that the UK was likely to need “many more times” the current 5,000 ventilators, amid concerns hospitals will come under intense pressure.
He said the growing virus outbreak meant “the elderly and vulnerable” would be asked to “shield themselves by self-isolating”.
When pushed on whether they could be asked to isolate for up to four months, he said: “That is in the action plan, yes.
“And we will be setting it out in more detail when that’s the right time to do so, because we appreciate it is a very big ask of the elderly and vulnerable, and it’s for their own self-protection.”
But Scotland appears to be taking a different approach.
Jeane Freeman, health secretary in the devolved government, said elderly people would be asked to “reduce social contact” but confirmed: “It’s not isolation.”
“We don’t want people who are elderly to be stuck in their homes alone not contacting anyone, with their families not able to be in touch with them and to help them,” she said.
“What were saying to them is, reduce your contact.”
Scotland’s national clinical director Jason Leitch boiled down the guidance to “no bingo, no pubs… but family visits and neighbours etc”.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said they were measures being taken by the Scottish government but “we are seeking to take them on a consistent UK four-nations basis”.
Older people with underlying health conditions are particularly at risk if they catch the coronavirus.
Mr Hancock said the UK government did not want to act too soon.
“It’s not an easy thing for people to do, it’s not an easy thing for people to sustain. But the critical thing is we need to be ready,” he explained.
Mr Hancock called the outbreak – which has killed 21 people and infected 1,140 in the UK – “one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced for a generation”.
“The measures we’re looking at taking are very, very significant and they will disrupt the ordinary lives of almost everybody in the country,” he added.
The government has up to now told members of the public they should stay at home for seven days if they have either a high temperature above 37.8C (100F) or a new continuous cough.
It comes as Boris Johnson is to ask firms to join a “national effort” and ramp up the production of ventilators.
Mr Hancock said the UK is likely to need “many times more than” the current 5,000 in the country.
“We’re saying (to manufacturers) if you produce a ventilator, we’ll buy it. No number is too high,” he said.
The health secretary said the government is also asking firms to switch production lines to make more ventilators and other critical care equipment.
The prime minister is holding a conference call with manufacturers on Sunday to ask them to step up.
The ventilators are needed to help people with severe symptoms to breathe properly when a sticky mucus fills their lungs.
The NHS could also buy up thousands of beds in private hospitals to boost capacity if COVID-19 spreads rapidly.
A government bill on emergency powers to deal with the outbreak is to be set out on Tuesday and published on Thursday, said Mr Hancock.
He said it would include a broad range of measures and that the government was “absolutely ready” to ban gatherings of more than 500 people.
“We will take these decisions at the right time. I’m absolutely ready to take actions like that,” said Mr Hancock.
He confirmed ministers were seeking to give police powers to arrest and forcibly quarantine people who are sick with the virus but are not self-isolating.
A government COBRA meeting will discuss the latest plans on Monday amid criticism from scientists that its plan is “risking lives” by not immediately bringing in social distancing measures.
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