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Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveils his government's plan to combat the coronavirus, on March 3, 2020.FRANK AUGSTEIN/AFP/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has outlined sweeping measures to combat the coronavirus, which include giving the government the power to ban public gatherings, close schools and allow police to detain people who are suspected of having the virus.

“I do think that this is a national challenge,” Mr. Johnson said Tuesday after he unveiled the government’s coronavirus action plan. "I fully understand public concern about the global spread of the virus and it is highly likely we will see a growing number of U.K. cases. Keeping the U.K. safe is the government’s overriding priority.”

Britain has 51 confirmed cases of the coronavirus although that number is expected to rise. The action plan is based on a worst-case scenario that could see up to 20 per cent of the population falling ill. That would mean hundreds of thousands of people requiring medical attention, which would swamp the already stretched National Health Service. Mr. Johnson insisted the NHS would receive whatever support it needed to cope with such a surge, although he did not provide any details.

The plan came as Mr. Johnson faced growing criticism about his slow response to the coronavirus outbreak. The Prime Minister had been largely out of public view for over a week as the virus spread around the world and the government hadn't announced any definitive measures to combat the illness until Tuesday.

The action plan also comes as the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, is expected to introduce the government’s budget next week. The government had been planning to include some major spending announcements in the budget but those could now be put off to cope with the virus, which is expected to weaken the country’s sluggish economy. On Tuesday, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, who is stepping down later this month, said the central bank would act "to help U.K. businesses and households manage through an economic shock that could prove large but will ultimately be temporary.”

Britain’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said on Tuesday that it could take up to six months for an outbreak to run its course and health officials were hoping measures to control the disease would push the peak of the illness into the summer months when hospitals were less busy. He added that the mortality rate for the coronavirus remains at around 2 per cent for the overall population, but slightly higher for people over the age of 80. However, Sir Patrick stressed that much of the data relating to the disease has come from parts of China where the health care system is not as developed as in Western Europe. Data from EU countries could prove more informative, he added.

Nonetheless, the government has armed itself with a host of powers to deal with a severe outbreak. Under the action plan, public health professionals and the police will have the authority “to place restrictions on the activities of individuals who are known to have the disease, or have been exposed to the disease.” The government will also enact “population distancing strategies” such as “school closures, encouraging greater home working and reducing the number of large scale gatherings, to slow the spread of the disease.” Police departments would also focus only on “serious crimes and maintaining public order” in the event that a large percentage of officers became sick.

Mr. Johnson stressed that the measures announced Tuesday would only be introduced if scientific evidence showed that the spread of the virus had reached critical levels. “We are committed to doing everything possible, based on the advice of our world-leading scientific experts, to prepare for all eventualities,” he added. "Let me be absolutely clear that for the overwhelming majority of people who contract the virus, this will be a mild disease from which they will speedily and fully recover, as we have already seen.”

Mr. Johnson added that he continued to shake hands with people and he said no decisions had been made about cancelling public events. However, the Premier League has been considering plans to play some soccer games behind closed doors if the spread of the virus becomes extensive.

One of Britain’s largest unions, the GMB, dismissed the government’s plan as “slap dash” and said there were no extra sick-pay provisions for people who self-isolated because of the illness. “Workers are then faced with the devastating choice – put food on the table or come to work even if they believe they are infected,” the union said in a statement.

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