Every Briton over the age of 70 will be told “within the coming weeks” to stay at home for an extended period to shield them from coronavirus, Health Secretary Matt Hancock says.
He told the BBC the advice will not come into force just yet but when it does it will last “a very long time”.
The government has faced pressure to do more to tackle the epidemic after the UK death toll rose to 21 on Saturday.
All deaths so far have been of people over 60 or with underlying conditions.
Over-70s – and younger people with certain health conditions – will be told they must remain at home and have groceries and vital medication delivered.
The health secretary said people without symptoms would be able to visit older relatives and friends as long as they stayed two metres – or six feet – apart from them.
He said the NHS did not have enough ventilator machines to treat the numbers of people likely to become critically ill with the virus and said the government was urging a wartime-like response from manufacturers to produce them.
Car manufacturers, weapon makers and army suppliers will be asked to change their production lines to make ventilators.
The health service is to stop non-urgent surgery and implement a huge training programme to retrain medics from other specialisms to treat those who become seriously ill with the Covid-19 disease.
Hotels could be requisitioned to increase hospital bed space with retired doctors and nursing staff asked to go back to work.
“We will stop at nothing to fight this virus and I think people have got the impression otherwise,” Mr Hancock said.
Mr Hancock was asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr when the new requirement for older and vulnerable people to isolate would begin.
He said: “I’m not going to go into any more detail on the timings because we want to be ready to say that when we judge, based on the scientific advice, that the time has come.”
“We know that when you ask people to do this sort of thing that they tire of it, it also has negative impacts,” he added.
Mr Hancock warned: “Every single person in this country is going to be affected and they are going to have to do things.”
Mr Hancock earlier used an article in the Sunday Telegraph to liken the coronavirus crisis to World War Two.
He wrote that, despite the Blitz, the UK “pulled together in one gigantic national effort” and that the same must happen once more.
It came as the government’s strategy was criticised by some scientists, who wrote to ministers urging them to introduce tougher measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19.
“Of course there is a scientific debate around scientific concepts but I want to be absolutely crystal clear, we will do what is necessary,” Mr Hancock said.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the public did not want ambiguity from the government.
“People just want clear advice. The prime minister should be out there daily speaking to the nation and explaining why things are changing,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge.
The total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK has reached 1,140, while 37,746 people have been tested.
Only patients in hospital are currently being tested for the virus.
Plea for ventilators
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to urge British companies to join a wartime-like effort to produce more ventilators and other medical equipment “at speed” to help the NHS deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
He will hold a conference call with industry leaders later, Mr Hancock said.
A ventilator is a machine that helps with breathing by getting oxygen into a patient’s lungs and removing carbon dioxide.
Mr Hancock said there were 5,000 ventilators available at the moment, but that many times that number would be needed.
Work is also under way to buy up thousands of private hospital beds to boost NHS capacity should it be needed and the possibility that empty hotels may be requisitioned has not been ruled out.
An emergency bill giving the government temporary powers to tackle the outbreak will be published next week.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has asked for “urgent sight” of the draft laws and for a meeting with the prime minister to discuss the crisis.
His party has already called on the government to publish the scientific modelling and data that it is using to inform its approach.
Why and when should vulnerable self-isolate?
Shielding the vulnerable and elderly will be an essential part of the government’s strategy when cases are rising rapidly – it was one of the decisions signed off at an emergency Cobra meeting on Thursday.
Half of the overall cases are expected within a period of a few weeks, with 95% in a period of around 10 weeks.
So officials will ask those at most risk of developing severe illness to stay at home.
They believe if they get the timing right and people adhere to it the move could reduce the number of deaths by up to a third.
But it of course carries its own risks – mentally and physically.
They believe the longest they could ask people to do this for is around 12 weeks or so.
That’s why it’s essential people don’t go too soon. At the moment the vulnerable groups should be protected to a degree by the fact that the small number of people with the virus should be self isolating.
But the officials recognise that individuals will make their own decisions about when to start.
Meanwhile, a new public information campaign is to be launched featuring the UK government’s chief medical adviser Prof Chris Whitty.
In other developments:
- The Foreign Office advised against all but essential travel to the whole of Spain after restrictions were put in place by the Spanish government
- Around 600 Britons are among the passengers stranded on a Fred Olsen cruise ship that has been unable to dock in the Bahamas after five people on board tested positive for the coronavirus
- Airlines warned the UK’s aviation industry may not survive the coronavirus pandemic without emergency financial support
- The US will extend its European coronavirus travel ban to include the UK and Republic of Ireland from 04:00 GMT on Tuesday