Man in mask Image copyright Reuters

Action to isolate the UK’s over-70s for an extended period to shield them from coronavirus is planned in the coming weeks, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has confirmed.

He told Sky News the measure “is a very big ask of the elderly and vulnerable, and it’s for their own protection”.

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.

The self-isolation measure would mean people being asked to remain at home without visitors and with groceries and vital medication dropped off for them on their doorsteps.

Speaking to Sky News’s Sophy Ridge, Mr Hancock was asked whether the advice would be in place for four months as had been reported.

He said: “We’ll be setting it out with more detail when it is the right time to do so.”

But he added the reason the measure had not been implemented yet was that the length of isolation required was “very long”.

It comes as the government’s strategy has been criticised by some scientists, who have written to ministers urging them to introduce tougher measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19.

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 said.

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.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is to urge British companies to join a “national 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.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Matt Hancock said asking the elderly to self-isolate for a long time would be a “big ask”

Work is also under way to buy up thousands of private hospital beds to boost NHS capacity should it be needed.

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:

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