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More than six million people could be absent from work if coronavirus takes hold in UK, government warns

More than six million people could be absent from work if coronavirus takes hold in UK, government warns
4 min read

More than six million people in the UK could be forced to take time off work as a result of the coronavirus, ministers believe.

The Government’s battle plan for dealing with the outbreak also warns that police may have to ignore low-level crimes as absences leave the thin blue line stretched to breaking point.

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.”

It adds: “some non-urgent care may be delayed to prioritise and triage service delivery. Staff rostering changes may be necessary including calling leavers and retirees back to service.

Although health chiefs’ efforts are currently focused on trying to contain the bug, they admit it is “inevitable” that the outbreak will get worse.

They would then move to the “mitigation” phase, during which time draconian measures will be introduced to deal with it.

“Health and social care services will work together to support early discharge from hospital, and to look after people in their own homes,” the document says.

“Emergency services, including the police and fire and rescues services, will enact business continuity plans to ensure they are able to maintain a level of service that fulfill their critical functions.

“For example with a significant loss of officers and staff the police would concentrate on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order.”

However, the Government insists that the NHS and other public services remain well-placed to deal with the outbreak.

The document, which was signed off by the Government’s emergency Cobra committee on Monday, says: “The UK remains in a high state of readiness to respond robustly to any disease outbreak, and our track record of success means that we can offer a high degree of assurance that we will be able to maximise the effectiveness of our health and care systems, and in doing so also respond effectively to the outbreak.”


The plan was unveiled as Bank of England governor Mark Carney said the central bank stood ready to act to try and mitigate a potential downturn caused by an outbreak.

Addressing MPs on the Treasury committee, Mr Carney - who will be replaced by Andrew Bailey at the helm of the Bank later this month - said: "The Bank of England’s role is to help UK businesses and households manage through an economic shock that could prove large but will ultimately be temporary.

"The Bank will take all necessary steps to support the UK economy and financial system, consistent with its statutory responsibilities.  

"We are monitoring the situation closely across all our functions and ensuring all necessary contingency plans are in place."

Mr Carney said the Bank would be monitoring the possible impacts of the outbreak on the availability of finance as well as confidence in the economic system.

The Bank's Prudential Regulation Committee is also looking at own contingency plans for financial institutions to assess whether they still are able to "serve customers and markets with split teams and remote working", Mr Carney said.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock meanwhile warned Brits against stockpiling food and hand sanitisers, amid reports supermarkets are considering restricting supplies.

"The responsibility on people today is to carry on your ordinary life," he said on the BBC's Today programme.

Pressed on whether the public should begin hoarding goods, he said: "We are certainly not recommending that action. And what's important is to try to come through this together and everyone has a duty to do some things, hand-washing being the most obvious example."

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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