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No more coffee and cakes: London cafe owner rushes to help health service

LONDON, March 26 (Reuters) - The owner of a popular north London cafe is among more than 400,000 people who signed up to help Britain's National Health Service cope with the coronavirus crisis within 24 hours of a government appeal for volunteers.

Amirah Gajia, whose Bake Street cafe in a vibrant corner of Hackney attracts a multi-cultural crowd of families and hipsters, has had to shut down along with most other London eateries because of government safety measures.

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked people to avoid pubs, restaurants and cafes on March 16, Gajia stopped offering a seated service but initially continued to sell takeaway food and to provide deliveries via the cycling service Deliveroo.

But with the number of cases in London rising dramatically and much stricter social distancing measures announced by Johnson on March 20, Gajia decided it was no longer the right thing to do to ask her staff to come into work.

She shut down for good on Wednesday and immediately signed up for the NHS crisis volunteering scheme.

"I was thinking about what I'm going to do next," said Gajia, 30, in an interview at her cafe.

"I knew I wanted to maybe do some baking experiments at home, but I also knew that just yesterday they're calling for volunteers for the NHS. So I thought 'that's a great thing that I could do with my time.'"

The NHS, which since it was founded just after World War Two has offered healthcare for free to everyone living in Britain, inspires such loyalty in the public that it is sometimes compared to a religion.

After the government issued its appeal for 250,000 volunteers to come forward on Tuesday evening, 405,000 people signed up within 24 hours.

"They will be driving medicines from pharmacies to patients, they'll be bringing patients home from hospital. Very importantly, they'll be making regular phone calls to check on and support people who are staying on their own at home," Johnson said at a news conference on Wednesday.

"And they will be absolutely crucial in the fight against this virus."

Gajia said the coronavirus emergency had brought out the best in people.

"Everyone is really trying to support each other and help each other," she said.

"I know a lot of the doctors and the nurses are doing long hours and I think everyone should play their part and everyone should help each other out in coming together and squashing this." (Reporting by Jonathan Shenfield and Will Russell, writing by Estelle Shirbon)