Boris Johnson says Army could step in to help over-stretched police in coronavirus 'worst-case scenario'
The Army could be asked to step in to help over-stretched police forces if the Government’s “worst-case scenario” for dealing with the coronavirus comes true, Boris Johnson has confirmed.
The Prime Minister said troops “always” stood ready to assist the police amid warnings that officers may have to prioritise the most serious crimes if the crisis worsens.
An action plan published by the Government on Tuesday says police and fire services will “enact business continuity plans to ensure they are able to maintain a level of service that fulfils their critical functions” if the event that the virus becomes established in the UK population.
“For example, with a significant loss of officers and staff, the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order,” it warns.
Speaking to reporters in Downing Street, Mr Johnson was pressed on whether troops could be called on to assist police if their numbers are reduced by the outbreak.
He said: “There are long established plans by which the police will, obviously they will keep the public safe but they will prioritise the things they will have to do.
“And the Army of course is always ready to backfill as and when. But that is under the reasonable worst-case scenario.”
The comments came as Mr Johnson unveiled the Goverment’s plan to tackle the virus, and acknowledged it was now "highly likely” that there would be a “growing number of UK cases" following the viruses' spread beyond China.
The Prime Minister said “the overwhelming majority of people" who contract the virus would experience "a mild disease from which they will speedily and fully recover".
And he added: "The plan does not set out the Government will do, it sets out the steps that we could take at the right time and on the basis of the scientific advice.
“Our country remains extremely well prepared, as it has been since the outbreak began in Wuhan several months ago.”
Mr Johnson also downplayed warnings about handshakes helping to spread the virus, instead urging the public to focus on "the crucial thing" of washing hands with soap and hot water "for the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice".
He said: "I can tell you that I'm shaking hands continuously.
"I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually few coronavirus patients and I shook hands with everybody, you'll be pleased to know.
"And I continued to shake hands. I think it's very important that we, you know, people can obviously make up their own minds... our judgement is washing your hands is the crucial thing."
The Government's analysis predicts that more than six million people in the UK could be forced to take time off work as a result of the coronavirus if the crisis escalates.
School closures of up to 12 weeks could also be ordered to halt the spread of the disease, while patients with other illnesses may be sent home early from hospital to free up bed space.
Retired health professionals, as well as others who have left the NHS, will be encouraged to return to help deal with the crisis.
Non-urgent medical procedures would be delayed if the deadly virus takes hold among the population, according to the 28-page action plan.
Employees would be urged to work from home to slow down the spread of the disease, and “large scale gatherings” would be cancelled as part of a “social distancing” strategy.
The document says: “In a stretching scenario, it is possible that up to one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks.”
Lib Dem health spokesperson Munira Wilson urged the Government to remain "open and transparent about the steps it is taking" to combat the threat of the disease.
She said: "People are enormously concerned about the spread of this virus. It is vital that the Government confirms that anyone forced to self-isolate will not be left without pay, potentially being pushed into hardship as a result of factors beyond their control.
"Any new emergency laws to tackle the virus must be proportionate and time-limited, with a cast-iron sunset clause to ensure that ministers are not given sweeping permanent powers."
The number of confirmed cases of the virus in the UK rose to 39 on Monday.
Public Health England has said that most cases of coronavirus - now being referred to as COVID-19 - have appeared mild, with sympoms including coughing, sneezing and shortness of breath.
But officials are advising anyone who has returned from Iran, parts of Italy, South Korea or China's Hubei province in recent weeks to call NHS 111 and stay indoors.
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