UK set to step up coronavirus response as toll rises

Pedestrians wearing protective face masks walk in Soho in London, Britain, on March 11, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (AFP) - The British government was expected on Thursday (March 12) to implement the second phase of its plan to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, but rejected calls for Parliament to be suspended after an MP tested positive.

The government has so far not moved out of the first "contain" stage of its four-tier plan, revealed on March 3, which focuses on detecting early cases and preventing the disease "taking hold in this country for as long as is reasonably possible".

But with eight deaths and 456 cases now recorded, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to announce the country is moving to the second "delay" phase when he chairs another special emergency planning meeting on Thursday, his spokesman said on Wednesday.

This stage is designed to slow the spread, and if it does take hold, "lowering the peak impact and pushing it away from the winter season", according to the official documentation.

Ms Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP and junior health minister, revealed late on Tuesday that she had been diagnosed with the virus.

Former minister Rory Stewart, a former Conservative MP now running to be mayor of London, on Wednesday called for the lower House of Commons to "cease to meet in person" to avoid any further spread.

But Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Wednesday that "we will keep Parliament open" so the government could be held to account.

"Our democracy is the foundation of our way of life," he told Parliament, while adding that "in some ways this house may have to function differently".

Ms Dorries attended an event hosted by Mr Johnson last week, but a Downing Street source said they had not been in close contact.

The source said the Premier was displaying no symptoms and there was no need for a test, although he continues to follow health advice to regularly wash his hands.

However, an opposition Labour MP, Ms Rachael Maskell, revealed she had been advised by the state-funded health service helpline to isolate herself after meeting with Ms Dorries last week, even though she had no symptoms.

"MPs are at high risk through very frequent contacts and large gatherings," tweeted Mr Stewart, a former aid minister who ran against Mr Johnson for leadership of their ruling Conservative party last year.

"They are in danger of infecting each other in the chamber, and then going on to infect others. Time for Action. Now."

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