A ban on “mass gatherings” will begin from next week as the government bows to growing pressure to implement draconian restrictions to curb coronavirus.

Businesses and other organisations will also be urged to ensure most of their staff work from home – despite ministers and scientists repeatedly saying neither measure is yet necessary, and possibly counterproductive.

The new measures are to be introduced after:

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  • UK officials confirmed 798 cases of the virus – an increase of 208 in 24 hours. Meanwhile, the death toll rose to 11 with the first fatality to be announced in Scotland.

  • Public Health England recommended the sick stay clear of care homes but fell short of an outright ban on visitors

  • Mayoral and local elections across the UK were postponed until 2021

  • British sporting events were also pushed back with the Premier League and the London Marathon postponed

  • Parliament will limit visitors from Monday and reduce overseas travel for MPs  

  • European borders continued to close as British Airways warned of potential job losses

The shift to shut down public events will be justified on the grounds of the burden put on public services, including the hard-pressed NHS and the police.

However, it comes after the government’s strategy was effectively overtaken by events, as sports organisations and others ignored its advice and took their own decisions to outlaw mass gatherings.

Meanwhile, a jump in cases saw 208 new infections announced, bringing the national total to 798. In Scotland hospital officials announced an elderly patient being treated by NHS Lothian had died – the nation’s first and the 11th for the UK overall.

Emergency legislation will also be published in Westminster next week to give ministers the legal powers to take extreme measures, if necessary.

A Whitehall source said: “Ministers are working with the chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer on our plan to stop various types of public event, including mass gatherings, beginning next week.

“We are also talking to businesses and other bodies about the timing of moving towards much more widespread working from home.

“There are many complex considerations to make all these measures as effective as possible. We will make the right decisions at the right time based on the best scientific evidence.”

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Only on Thursday, Boris Johnson said: “The scientific advice, as we’ve said over the last couple of weeks, is that banning such events will have little effect on the spread.”

And Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, said the probability of someone infecting a large number of people in a stadium was “very low”.

“You then get a displacement activity where you end up with everyone congregating somewhere else – you may actually perversely have an increased risk, particularly in an indoor environment,” he warned.

However, the prime minister risked looking increasingly impotent as the Premier League, the London Marathon organisers and many other authorities ignored advice and cancelled events.

Explaining the shift, the source said: “We are concerned about the burden large events put on public services – including the health service and the police – from dealing with coronavirus.”

And the source added: “We have drafted emergency legislation to give the government the powers it needs to deal with coronavirus, including powers to stop mass gatherings and compensate organisations. We will publish this legislation next week.”

Earlier, opposition parties criticised the failure to justify why the UK is not imposing the tough restrictions now commonplace, at a “forceful” meeting to discuss emergency legislation.

Jon Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, demanded the government publish the scientific data said to justify the reason for keeping offices, schools and sporting events open for now.

leftCreated with Sketch.
rightCreated with Sketch.

Concern was also raised over the failure to take further steps to protect the elderly and most vulnerable – including possibly urging them to stay at home and out of contact with others.

The government’s light-touch approach to the virus compared to the more draconian measures deployed on the continent was maintained in its latest guidance to care homes – with operators urged to continue to allow loved ones to visit.

While Public Health England’s recommendations urged the sick to stay clear of homes for the elderly and people with disabilities, the guidance urged operators to “consider the wellbeing of residents, and the positive impact of seeing friends and family”.

Ministers signalled their shift to a tougher stance when they shelved May’s local and mayoral elections for a full year, rather than for the six months expected.

The longest suspension of a vote in peacetime will disrupt votes for 118 local councils, 40 police and crime commissioner races and 8 mayors across the country – including in London where Sadiq Khan will retain his place at City Hall in an election due to be contested by Conservative Shaun Bailey and independent Rory Stewart.  

Mr Stewart, a former Conservative minister who has been calling for a more severe government response, wrote on Twitter: “The right decision. We should now move more rapidly to close gatherings, and schools; extend the isolation period; and restrict non-essential visits to care homes (who have few back up options for patients if they have to close.)”

Despite efforts to calm the public outside of SW1, parliament will also introduce new restrictions on the estate – allowing fewer visitors into the palace of Westminster while limiting the overseas trips of MPs. 

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, and the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, said in a joint statement: “We are clear that now is the time to be pragmatic; everyone in the country is being asked to strike a balance and it is right that we do the same.

“It is in this spirit that we have decided to implement a number of restrictions relating to overseas travel and visitor access. These steps have been developed in conjunction with Public Health England and reflect the government’s current approach.

“Members of the public wishing to enter the Parliamentary Estate solely to view Westminster Hall will not be admitted”.

In the corporate world the virus has continued to take its toll on business, with British Airways the latest to warn of potential job losses as nations seek to introduce more severe border policies.

Denmark, Poland, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia – all Schengen area countries committed to the free movement of people – have announced border closures to mitigate the virus’ spread.

“Please do not underestimate the seriousness of this for our company,” British Airways chief executive Alex Cruz said in an internal video message to staff.

Telling staff the coronavirus crisis was more serious than 9/11, the Sars outbreak or the financial crash of 2009, he said the airline was “suspending routes and will be parking aircraft in a way we have never had to before”.

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