Wanted: 250,000 NHS volunteers – as new hospital announced

The health secretary has announced plans for a 250,000-strong volunteer force to help the NHS deal with the UK’s coronavirus outbreak.

“We are seeking a quarter of a million volunteers, people in good health to help the NHS, for shopping, for the delivery of medicines and to support those who are shielding to protect their own health,” Matt Hancock told the government’s daily news conference.

He was speaking after it was revealed that the UK’s death toll from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, had risen to 424.

Covent Garden in London goes into lockdown
Lockdown: The dos and don’ts

The health secretary also announced that a new hospital, with capacity for 4,000 people, will open at London’s ExCel Centre next week.

The temporary Nightingale Hospital has been set up with the help of the military.

The NEC in Birmingham has also said it “stands ready” and is “well equipped” to become a temporary hospital, after reports suggested it was another location being considered by ministers.

In recent weeks the government has appealed for retired NHS staff to return to the service.

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And the health secretary revealed that a total of 11,788 have responded, including 2,660 doctors, more than 2,500 pharmacists and other staff, and 6,147 nurses.

“I pay tribute to each and every one of those who is returning to the NHS at its hour of need,” Mr Hancock said.

Health Secretary: ‘Police will enforce rules’

Meanwhile, some 5,500 final-year medics and 18,700 final-year student nurses will “move to the frontline” next week.

Mr Hancock added that 7.5 million pieces of protective equipment, including facemasks, had been shipped out in the last 24 hours, while a new testing facility in Milton Keynes opened earlier on Tuesday.

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Tuesday’s news conference is the first since Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered sweeping measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus in the UK.

People are allowed outside only for “very limited” purposes, which are shopping for basic necessities like food and medicine, one form of daily exercise, medical and care needs, and travelling to and from work if “absolutely necessary” and cannot be done from home.

In addition, all shops – apart from certain categories such as food stores and chemists – are to remain closed for at least three weeks and gatherings of more than two people have been banned.

Watch PM’s address to the nation

The lockdown was announced after it became clear that some people were failing to follow the government’s advice on social distancing.

Mr Hancock said the measures announced by the government “are not requests, they are rules”.

People who break the lockdown rules will be given an initial £30 fine and could end up in court if they do not pay.

But police chiefs warned of phone lines being inundated with calls on Monday night with questions about what movements are still permitted, while MPs have also been calling for answers.

There were pictures of packed London Tube trains on social media on Tuesday, with the government facing criticism over its policy on workers.

British Transport Police has now said 500 officers will be patrolling the rail network nationwide to remind people that only essential journeys should be made.

In particular, there has been criticism of ministers’ stance on construction workers.

They can continue to go to work as long as they can remain two metres (6.5ft) apart at all times.

“The judgement we have made is that in work, in many instances, the two-metre rule can be applied,” Mr Hancock said.

He added: “Where possible, people should work from home and employers have a duty to ensure that people are more than two metres apart.”

A packed Tube train at Bethnal Green station
Image: A packed Tube train at Bethnal Green station

But some builders and construction workers have reported coming under pressure from employers to turn up for work, while others have said they feel “angry and unprotected” about having to show up.

Dr Jennie Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, said individuals should raise concerns “very firmly” with their bosses if they felt unsafe, but said the government could not individually cover every workplace and every scenario.

London mayor Sadiq Khan has urged the government to take the “difficult decision” and ban non-essential construction work.

Under the curbs on movement, people should leave their homes only for very limited reasons only
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One area of confusion that has arisen from the government’s guidelines is whether couples who live in separate households should still see each other.

Dr Harries said such couples could be spreading coronavirus if they continue to meet up – and suggested they could move in together during the strict restrictions on movement.

“If you are two individuals, two halves of the couple, living in separate households then ideally they should stay in those households,” she said.

Is this the answer to NHS prayers?

“The alternative might be that, for quite a significant period going forward, they should just test the strength of their relationship and decide whether they should be permanently be resident in another household.”

Dr Harries added: “What we do not want is people switching in and out of households.

“It defeats the purpose of reductions in social interactions and will allow the transmission of disease.”

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