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UK government: Coronavirus could leave one in five absent from work

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
The government published its plans to contain the coronavirus. (PA)

Up to a fifth of the entire workforce could be absent from work if the coronavirus outbreak significantly escalates in the UK, according to the government.

The government published its plan for tackling the coronavirus on Tuesday, with a plan to “research, contain, delay and mitigate” the virus. The plan says previous disease outbreaks mean “widespread exposure” may be inevitable in the UK, but says slowing down its spread is still key.

The report says officials are uncertain about the impact on UK businesses, but say it is possible as many as one in five employees could be absent “in a stretching scenario.”

Police could be forced to concentrate on “serious crimes and maintaining public order” if a significant number of officers and staff are forced to stay at home.

Read more: Hand sanitiser sales soar 255% as coronavirus fears grow

The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK is now at 51, health secretary Matt Hancock has said.

Meanwhile NHS and Northern Irish health services may delay non-urgent care and bring staff on leave and even retired workers back on duty if they suffer similar staffing problems. All the emergency services are drawing up contingency plans to sustain their “critical functions’ if available staff numbers drop.

The government may consider actively encouraging UK employees to work from home if the disease becomes more established in the UK. Official advice has been released for employers, with some firms already closing their offices after cases have been confirmed among individual staff.

The report notes that lower staffing levels mean “everyone will face increased pressures at work,” and says supporting staff welfare is “critical.”

Read more: World Health Organization (WHO) urges people to use cards not banknotes to avoid spreading virus

Other radical measures the government may consider if the situation deteriorates include “reducing the number of large-scale gatherings” and wider school closures. Prime minister Boris Johnson said in a press conference on Tuesday morning the army was “ready to back-fill” to assist the police if needed, but stressed that was in a “reasonable worst-case scenario.”

Official NHS advice is for people with potential symptoms to call the 111 coronavirus advice line rather than attending a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital. They may then be asked to self-isolate for up to 14 days, staying away from work, public transport and avoiding visitors.

The public have been urged to wash their hands with soap regularly, only share reliable information and check up on family, friends and neighbours.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, who spoke alongside Johnson at the press conference, that around 1% of people who contract the virus “might end up dying.” The vulnerable and elderly are particularly at risk.

But Johnson sought to reassure the public after outlining the government’s plans and advice. “I want to stress that for the vast majority of the people of this country, we should be going about our business as usual,” he said.

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