‘Coronavirus is the biggest threat the UK has faced in decades’ warns Business Secretary as 563 die overnight

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Alok Sharma speaking during a media briefing in D

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Alok Sharma speaking during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19). Picture: PA Wire/PA Images - Credit: PA

Business Secretary Alok Sharma has warned the coronavirus pandemic is the “biggest threat our country has faced in decades”, as a further 563 people died overnight of the “invisible killer” in the UK.

At a press briefing in Downing Street he said the government’s strategy remains to delay the spread of the virus, adding that the ability to treat people has been expanded.

Some 4,324 people have been confirmed to have contracted coronavirus between 9am yesterday and 9am today, but the number is probably much higher because tests are only being carried out on patients in hospital.

Mr Sharma said: “We recognise the extreme disruption the necessary actions we are asking people to take are having on their lives, their businesses, their jobs, and the nation’s economy.

“And, I want to thank everyone across our whole country for the huge effort that is being made collectively.”

Local authorities have been provided with £12 billion in grants for businesses, and have been urged to pay it out “as quickly as possible”.

Mr Sharma said “unprecedented action” was being taken to increase NHS capacity by dramatically expanding the number of beds, key staff and life-saving equipment on the front line.

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The Chancellor, the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority have written to chief executives of UK banks to urge them to make sure the benefits of the Covid Business Interruption Loan Scheme are “passed through to businesses and consumers”, Mr Sharma confirmed.

“It would be completely unacceptable if any banks were unfairly refusing funds to good business in financial difficulty,” he warned.

“Just as the taxpayer stepped in to help the banks back in 2008, we will work with the banks to do everything they can to repay that favour and support the businesses and people of the United Kingdom in their time of need.”

Yvonne Doyle, director of health protection for Public Health England, said today’s updated figures are “slightly concerning”.

“It’s still too early to say whether the plateau of hospital admissions has ended but we’ve now seen three days of increases in a row and again,” she said.

“We need to protect the NHS, and the best way to do that is to stay at home, to avoid catching the disease yourself and obviously avoid giving it to anyone else.”

On hospital admissions, she said London “is where coronavirus is most advanced”, adding: “But the chart shows that the threat is everywhere.

“We need to protect the NHS everywhere and the Midlands now is obviously a concern as well.”

Mr Sharma said that increasing testing capacity is “absolutely the government’s top priority”.

“We’re now at 10,000 tests a day, we’re rolling out additional networks of labs and testing sites,” he said.

“And in terms of PHE Personal Protective Eqipment, over the last two weeks 390 million products have been distributed.

“And of course we will continue to do more and work to make sure that PHE (PPE) is available.”

Dr Doyle said there is currently capacity for around 3,000 tests for frontline NHS staff, which will increase.

Asked how many frontline workers are being tested, she said: “The number of tests undertaken in the NHS and Public Health England combined testing capacity is just increasing at the moment.

“So that will be a relatively small number but there is capacity, for example, today for almost 3,000 and that will increase as we get to 25,000, that capacity.

“But the important capacity is in the second strand where we have five centres where people can drive through and get their testing done in order of priority.

“NHS chief executives are identifying that priority and the intention here is to get from thousands to hundreds of thousands within the coming weeks.”

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