Coronavirus: Britain warns national health service could be overwhelmed, those at-risk to stay home

A man wearing a protective face mask takes a selfie on London Bridge on March 21, 2020.
A man wearing a protective face mask takes a selfie on London Bridge on March 21, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged 1.5 million people with underlying health issues to self-isolate for at least three months and said Britain's medical system is only two or three weeks away from being swamped, as has happened to the Italian health service.

"Unless we act together, unless we make the heroic and collective national effort to slow the spread - then it is all too likely that our own NHS will be similarly overwhelmed," Johnson said.

In comments timed to coincide with Mothers Day on Sunday (March 22) in the UK, the prime minister said families should stay away from elderly parents to spare them the risk of catching the coronavirus.

Letters will be sent to people deemed as being most at risk from the disease, "strongly advising" them not to go out for at least 12 weeks from Monday.

Johnson's latest intervention suggests that his administration is struggling to make up lost ground as a result of the government's initially ambivalent attitude to the crisis. He prevaricated in closing the nation's schools after several were already turning away pupils.

On Friday, Johnson effectively closed down the United Kingdom, ordering pubs, restaurants, theatres, cinemas and gyms to shut their doors to fight the virus. Stores are also starting to shut.

The latest figures show a significant jump in Britain's death count, from 177 to 233. The number of cases has topped 5,000, with the disease spreading fastest in London.