The government would consider an Italian-style lockdown if people fail to follow advice to stay at home during the coronavirus crisis, a senior minister has said.
Robert Jenrick, the communities secretary, failed to rule out bringing in stricter enforcement measures to keep the public at home amid reports of crowds in parks and at seaside resorts.
It comes as Boris Johnson urged the public to resist visiting their parents on Mother’s Day, warning that the Covid-19 outbreak is “accelerating” in the UK.
GPs are writing to more than 1.5 million people with underlying health conditions to urge them to stay at home for up to three months, with military planners drafted in to help local support systems.
“We want to live in a free society where we can continue to go about activities whilst following the medical advice. But this isn’t a game, it is very serious,” Mr Jenrick told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
“If people don’t follow that advice we’ll clearly have to follow other options, but none of us want to go down that route.”
He said the images from Italy were “sobering” and urged Britons to follow the medical advice to help “turn the tide” on the coronavirus crisis.
In a direct message to vulnerable people who should stay home, Mr Jenrick said: “We want you to know that you might be staying at home for a long period of time but you will not be alone.
“We are doing to do whatever it takes to support you.”
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, the city hit hardest by the outbreak, urged the public to stay home, saying that people will die if social distancing rules are flouted.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Life has changed, we have got to do things differently for a while now. Social interaction leads to the disease spreading, leads to people dying.
Mr Khan urged people to take precautions for their vulnerable relatives “who will die if you don’t” and for the “heroic NHS” staff battling the virus.
Asked if he would close London’s parks, Mr Khan said he would do “whatever it takes” to slow the spread of the virus, adding: “Have no doubt, mixing leads to more people dying.”
Mr Khan also suggested that police could get involved, saying: “Clearly if it is the case that people continue to act in a way that is leading to this disease spreading then those sorts of things are things that have to be considered.”
Tory former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said social distancing was the only way to give the UK a chance to avoid “the terrible impact on the health system that we saw in Italy”.
He said: “It’s absolutely possible still, just, to avoid what we’ve seen, but everyone is very, very worried and the virus is growing still very fast and it’s very, very disappointing when people don’t obey the simple instructions that are being given out.
“It’s not your own life you’re risking necessarily, but you could be risking someone else’s life.”
As the UK’s death toll rose to 240 on Sunday, vulnerable people, including the over 70s, pregnant women and those with existing health conditions, were urged to stay at home for 12 weeks from Monday.
Those affected will receive regular text messages containing advice and guidance on how to manage their condition while at home, including having prescriptions delivered and accessing support for daily living.