A range of drastic new measures, including emergency legislation allowing people to switch jobs and volunteer to work in the NHS or care homes, are being drawn up by ministers in an attempt to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
The measures – which also include plans for courts to use telephone and video links to avoid people having to attend in person – are likely to be included in a special Covid-19 emergency bill, as the government prepares to move to the next phase – delay – of its response to the spread of the virus.
Sports governing bodies and broadcasters have been called to an emergency meeting on Monday by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to examine whether large events should be held behind closed doors if the situation worsens. Another measure reportedly being considered is banning over-70s from attending large gatherings.
The government’s emergency committee, Cobra, will also meet on Monday and will be chaired by the prime minister before the budget on Wednesday, which has had to be reshaped and rewritten in response to the outbreak. The number of coronavirus cases in the UK rose to 206 on Saturday.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, believes emergency powers can be used to give NHS volunteers the employment safeguards they need to allow them to leave their main jobs and temporarily volunteer in the event of a widespread pandemic.
Around 3 million people already work voluntarily in the health, community health and social care sectors. A government source said last night: “In the event of a pandemic, we want to be able to maximise the number of volunteers and the amount of time they can commit to supporting the health and social care system – without fear of them losing their jobs.
“Under these proposed measures, the government will ensure that the jobs of skilled, experience or qualified volunteers are protected for up to four weeks to allow them to shore up resilience across the health and social care systems. As part of this, leading business groups will be consulted thoroughly about how best to implement these changes.”
Ministers are also discussing whether limits on when supermarket delivery vans can operate, and restrictions on drivers’ hours, can be lifted temporarily to allow food to be delivered to the ill and vulnerable. Any attempt to suspend limits on drivers’ hours is likely to be resisted by unions.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, will use the budget to put in place a multibillion-pound fund to help businesses that suffer the worst effects of the virus, with particular focus on small firms employing 100 people or fewer. Sunak is understood to be concerned that smaller firms will be especially vulnerable if the crisis develops and a majority of staff call in sick or are sent home to prevent the spread of the virus.
Without the ability to find replacement staff, Sunak will say, smaller firms could be forced to shut down or even go bust. “We are preparing for the worst while hoping for the best,” one government source said. “We are looking at all aspects of how the virus can damage the economy, and looking to make sure we can protect firms and employees.”
Details of the plan were still being hammered out this weekend but the chancellor expects to provide a comprehensive package of measures following talks with other Whitehall departments. He is also hopeful that he can give details of how firms can make claims on the funds.
On Saturday, the Department of Health announced that coronavirus cases had risen by 42 to 206, a slight slowdown on the previous day, when the biggest leap yet – 47 – had been reported. So far, more than 21,000 people have been tested for the virus in the UK.
Off the coast of California, more than 140 Britons were stranded on a cruise ship on Saturday night waiting to be tested for the virus after it emerged that at least 21 crew members and passengers had been infected.
On Saturday, the family of the UK’s second fatality from coronavirus paid tribute to the 83-year-old man, who died in Milton Keynes university hospital last Thursday.
Requesting that the media did not name him, and revealing they were being forced to self-isolate and had been tested for the virus, the family said: “We as a family have lost a truly loving and wonderful person and are trying to come to terms with this. He was 83 years old and a wonderful husband, dad, grandad and great-grandad who would go to any lengths to support and protect his family.
“This whole nightmare is not something that we or our loved one asked for. As we are in isolation currently, we cannot arrange for him to be put to rest and with all the activity that is going around with regards to everyone’s concerns, we cannot grieve him as we would wish to.”