Electoral Commission urges ministers to postpone May's local elections over coronavirus
The Electoral Commission has recommended ministers delay the upcoming local and mayoral elections amid the coronavirus outbreak.
They said the polls, set to be held on 7 May, should be postponed until the autumn over concerns local authorities battling the outbreak would be unable to safely organise them.
More than 100 English local councils, eight directly elected English mayors and the new mayor of London are all due to be decided in the spring vote.
But in a letter to constitution minister Chloe Smith, the Electoral Commission said the risks of continuing were "so significant" that the Government should urgently approve the delay.
Bob Posner, the watchdog's chief executive, wrote: "This means that a decision now needs to be taken, by Government and as appropriate by Parliament, whether to proceed with the scheduled 7 May polls.
"So voters can cast their ballot, polling station venues need to be secured, set up, staffed and accessed; we already know that local authorities have concerns about their ability to ensure this, particularly at the same time as continuing to manage other key services in the current circumstances."
He added: "It is also vital that voters are able to hear the positions of candidates, parties and campaigners before they cast their vote; however, many forms of campaigning may not be possible, leaving insufficient space for the arguments to be heard."
Mr Posner said postal and proxy voting could provide a "partial solution" to the problem, but said significant numbers of voters would likely be unable to vote.
He added: "Clearly any decisions to delay elections which are due is significant and would not normally be desirable; however, we are in unprecedented times.
"The risks to delivery that have been identified are such that we cannot be confident that voters will be able to participate in the polls safely and confidently, nor that campaigners and parties will be able to put their case to the electorate.
"We therefore call on the Government to take steps to provide early clarity to all those with an interest in the electoral process; and on the available information and position we recommend the Government now delay the 7 May polls until the autumn."
Independent mayoral candidate Rory Stewart has already cancelled his campaign launch event and announced he would no longer attend meetings until the outbreak was under control.
The former Cabinet minister also branded Prime Minister Boris Johnson and London Mayor Sadiq Khan "irresponsible" over their response to the pandemic.
"Both the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister have been far too slow to respond to this," Mr Stewart told LBC.
"Schools should be closed already. Gatherings should be banned. The St Patrick's Day Parade which is coming this weekend should be banned.
"All the evidence from other countries is that the sooner you move to close schools, stop gatherings and encourage people to work from home, the more chance you have of getting on top of this and reducing the death toll."