UK coronavirus: 12,000 former NHS workers to return and emergency hospital to open as death toll rises – as it happened

Last modified: 06: 06 PM GMT+0

Rolling updates of the latest UK developments in the coronavirus crisis - as they happened. This blog is now closed, please follow the global coronavirus liveblog for updates

Evening summary

  • The Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, did not rule out lockdown rules getting even tighter after three weeks. He told Sky News this morning: “In three weeks’ time we will be able to say whether or not the path that we’ve followed needs any further intensification, or whether there are one or two of the existing restrictions that may be capable of being lifted.”
  • Ministers came under pressure to clarify what guidelines mean following some confusion over guidance including as to whether major construction work should go ahead and whether construction workers are considered essential workers and should continue to go to work on building sites.
  • The government continued to face pressure over the lack of routine testing for Covid-19, the plight of Britons stranded abroad and delays to urgent help for the self-employed. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, said the delay in announcing help for the self-employed was down to it being “incredibly complicated” finding a way of designing a scheme that would help those in need, while not giving money to people who did not need it.
  • The death toll in the UK rose by 87 to 422 – the largest day-on-day increase in the number of deaths since the outbreak began. Broken down: a further 83 people died in England, bringing the total to 386; a further two people died in Scotland, bringing the total to 16; a further patient died in Wales, bringing the total to 17; and a fourth patient died in Northern Ireland. The figure for England includes the first patient to die after contracting coronavirus in hospital.
  • The UK is heading for deep recession as the economy is contracting at its fastest rate in at least two decades, as the service sector is hit extremely hard by the Covid-19 outbreak.
  • Almost 12,000 recently retired NHS staff had responded to the call to return to the service. They included 2,660 doctors, more than 2,500 pharmacists and other staff and 6,147 nurses, he said. And some 5,500 final-year medics and 18,700 final-year student nurses will “move to the frontline” next week.
  • A temporary 4,000-bed hospital – the “NHS Nightingale Hospital” – will be opening at London’s ExCel centre next week.
  • People face fines starting at £30 for breaking the rule about holding gatherings in public.
  • Supermarkets introduced tougher measures to police in-store physical distancing between shoppers.
  • Prisons in England and Wales were put in immediate lockdown.

To continue following our worldwide coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, head over to our global live blog.


Khan says TfL cannot run full service on tube because too many staff are absent

In response to what Matt Hancock was saying (see 5.46pm), Sadiq Khan’s office is saying Transport for London cannot run a full service on the tube because so many staff are absent. A spokesman for the mayor of London said:

This is simply not true. The mayor has told ministers countless times over recent days that TfL simply cannot safely run a full service because of the levels of staff sickness and self-isolation. Nearly a third of staff are already absent - there aren’t enough drivers and control staff to do it.

The government must act urgently to get more people staying at home rather than going to work unnecessarily - that means taking the difficult decisions they are refusing to take to ban non-essential construction work and provide proper financial support to freelancers, the self employed and those on zero hours contracts to stay at home.

Matt Hancock implicitly blames Sadiq Khan for overcrowding on London tube

Here are the main points from Matt Hancock’s press conference. Rather, it was the daily government coronavirus press conference, being chaired for the first time by Hanock. Boris Johnson has fronted most of them since they started eight days ago.

  • Hancock said that the government had brought 3.5m antibody testing kits, to show whether people had had coronavirus, and that a new testing facility in Milton Keynes had opened today. He said:

I understand why NHS staff, in particular, and others across public service are so keen to get the testing ramped up, that we need to see and that we are undertaking.

Of course it really matters for getting people getting back to work, so we have now bought 3.5m antibody tests.

That will allow people to see whether they have had the virus and are immune to it and then can get back to work.

He also said 7.5m pieces of protective equipment including facemasks had been shipped out in the last 24 hours.

  • Hancock implicitly blamed Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor of London, for overcrowding on some London tube trains today. (See 10.52am for some video footage.) Asked about the problem, Hancock said:

When it comes to the tube, the first and the best answer is that Transport for London [which is run by Khan] should have the tube running in full so that people travelling on the tube are spaced out and can be further apart - obeying the two-metre rule wherever possible.

And there is no good reason in the information that I’ve seen that the current levels of tube provision should be as low as they are. We should have more tube trains running.

Generally the political figures from the UK government, the opposition, the devolved administrations and the major mayoralties who have been engaged in the coronavirus crisis have so far kept recriminations to a minimum. Perhaps Hancock’s comment is a sign that this is changing, because it was a clear dig at Khan. Earlier Khan himself openly criticised the government, saying that he had wanted to close construction sites but that he had been overruled by Boris Johnson. (See 3.21pm.)

  • Jenny Harries, the chief medical officer for England, said that couples who live apart should ideally stay apart - or else use coronavirus to “test the strength of their relationship” and move in together. She was responding to an invitation to clarify whether the government advice meant that couples who did not live in the same house should stop seeing each other. After Hancock ducked the question and passed it over to her, Harries replied:

If you are two individuals, two halves of the couple, living in separate households then ideally they should stay in those households.

The alternative might be that, for quite a significant period going forward, they should just test the strength of their relationship and decide whether they should be permanently be resident in another household.

What we do not want is people switching in and out of households. It defeats the purpose of reductions in social interactions and will allow the transmission of disease.

  • Hancock said he was launching a scheme inviting up to 250,000 people to volunteer to contribute to the fight against coronavirus. He explained:

Today we launch NHS volunteers. We are seeking a quarter of a million volunteers, people in good health to help the NHS, for shopping, for the delivery of medicines and to support those who are shielding to protect their own health.

  • He said that 11,788 recently retired NHS staff had responded to the call to return to the service. They included 2,660 doctors, more than 2,500 pharmacists and other staff and 6,147 nurses, he said. And some 5,500 final-year medics and 18,700 final-year student nurses would “move to the frontline” next week.
  • He said a temporary, 4,000-bed hospital, the “NHS Nightingale Hospital”, would be opening at the ExCel centre. He said:

We will, next week, open a new hospital - a temporary hospital - the NHS Nightingale Hospital at the Excel centre in London. The NHS Nightingale Hospital will comprise two wards, each of 2,000 people. With the help of the military and with NHS clinicians we will make sure that we have the capacity that we need so that everyone can get the support that they need.

Jenny Harries and Matt Hancock at a Downing Street press conference where they responded to questions submitted via Zoom.
Jenny Harries and Matt Hancock at a Downing Street press conference where they responded to questions submitted via Zoom. Photograph: PA Video/PA


The Department for Education has issued an alert for parents on its official Twitter account about a scam email doing the rounds to do with free school meals.

It says:

We have been informed some parents have received an email stating: ‘As schools will be closing, if you’re entitled to free school meals, please send your bank details and we’ll make sure you’re supported’. This is a scam email - do not respond, and delete immediately.

We have been informed some parents have received an email stating:

‘As schools will be closing, if you're entitled to free school meals, please send your bank details and we'll make sure you're supported’.

This is a scam email - do not respond, and delete immediately.

— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) March 24, 2020


The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, has raised concern over some construction sites remaining open.

He said work was being done to establish which sites had to be kept going, such as building work on hospitals and on properties damaged by this year’s floods.

But Drakeford said: “I believe there is a strong case for closing some construction sites. There are sites open today that do not need to be open and will not be open before many days are over.”

At a press conference in Cardiff, he said it was “not acceptable” that self-employed people were not currently being treated the same way as employees.

Calling for the UK government to do more, he said: “It is not acceptable that people should have different forms of help dependent on their employment status.”

Drakeford said letters were about to go out to 100,000 of the most vulnerable people in Wales asking them to stay at home – not going out at all – for 12-16 weeks.

He said there seemed to be no reason why there has been a cluster of cases in the area covered by the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, which includes parts of south-east Wales. “It’s one of those random things,” he said.

Drakeford said there had been an “astonishing groundswell” of volunteers keen to help in the response to the virus from hoteliers to council staff. He also suggested a leisure centre could be turned into a makeshift hospital.

The first minister said 800 people a day in Wales were being tested for the virus – but within a week or so this would increase tenfold to 8,000 a day. Key workers in the health sector would be tested first, then people in social care and after that it could be rolled out to others.


The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in prisons in England and Wales has more than trebled overnight, MPs have been told, as all jails have been placed under a restricted regime that will further limit inmates’ time out of cells.

Visits to prisons in England and Wales have been suspended following the prime minister’s “lockdown” announcement last night and the estate is operating on an “exceptional delivery model”, the head of the prison service told the justice committee.

Jo Farrar, chief executive of HM Prison & Probation Service, told the committee 13 inmates in nine prisons had confirmed Covid-19 infections, compared to four confirmed yesterday. An additional 12 prison staff are confirmed to have the disease.

Farrar said the exceptional delivery model meant that inmates will have to spend more time in their cells, although prisoners will be able to come out for meals, phone-calls and showers. Gyms are closed and exercise will only take place outside, Farrar said.

Due to the restrictions placed on visits, the Prison Service was increasing access to phones for inmates who did not have them. Farrar said 60% already have phones in their cells, mobile phones will be provided to some of those who do not have in-cell access.

As of yesterday, there had been confirmed cases in Birmingham, High Down, in Surrey, Manchester (Strangeways) and Oakwood, in Wolverhampton.

In a sparsely populated Grimond Room in Portcullis House, Robert Buckland told a skeleton justice committee:

Strategically there are two things: one, the need to save lives and to protect the vulnerable but two to maintain order and public protection and there in our prison service and our prison system those two issues come together in a very challenging way.

I have to get that balance right in order to make sure the public are protected and that risk is managed and minimising the effects of this virus within the estate.

All campsites, caravan and holiday parks in Scotland are to close, in line with the latest guidance on coronavirus.

This comes after the Scottish government urged people to stop travelling to the Highlands and Islands in a bid to avoid coronavirus, following reports of an influx of self-isolators and people in camper vans travelling to the area in recent days.

The rural economy secretary, Fergus Ewing, said:

As the Scottish Government has made abundantly clear, this is not the time for holidays, travel, or for being away from home. Additional visitors, particularly to rural areas and our islands, will put a severe strain on local resources and the NHS, which is not set up to cover the need of non-residents long term.

The announcement was made as the Holyrood parliament discussed the latest advice and gave its legislative consent to the UK Covid-19 bill. The parliament will also be severely limiting access to its building, with the media gallery as well as the public gallery to the chamber now closed, and the parliament sitting for only one more day before the Easter recess and closing on other days.

During the busy Holyrood session the Lord Advocate, James Wolfe, confirmed that almost all criminal trials have been put on hold in response to the coronavirus outbreak, with accused people to be taken into custody when it is needed to ensure public safety.

Scotland’s Tenants’ union, Living Rent, has welcomed the Scottish Government’s confirmation that it will ban evictions from both the private and social sector for the next six months.


Harries says the antibody testing will give the government a real insight into the way that the disease has spread.

She says the other testing, the “here and now testing” (testing whether people have coronavirus now, as opposed to antibody testing which shows whether people have had coronavirus) is also being ramped up.


Hancock says government has bought 3.5m antibody tests

Hancock says he understands why people want more testing.

The government has bought 3.5m antibody tests, he says.

He says these will come online soon. A new testing facility is opening in Milton Keynes today.

On protective equipment, he says 7.5m pieces of protective equipment have been moved in recent days.


Q: What do you say to NHS workers who have had to go into work in full carriages?

Hancock says Transport for London should be running proper services. He implies that Transport for London is not running enough carriages.

Q: Why are you letting construction sites carry on? Is it connected to the large sums donated to the Conservative party by developers? In Scotland they are taking a different approach.

Hancock says the government has at all times been following the expert advice. He says construction should only go ahead if workers can follow the two-metre rule.

Q: Why are you so keen for non-essential workers to go to work? Are you, like Donald Trump, worried about the impact on the economy?

Hancock says the two-metre rule can be applied. In the House of Commons it is very visible, he says. (He is referring to the white lines of the floor of the chamber.)

Q: Should boyfriends and girlfriends living in different homes see each other?

Harries says the government is asking people to stay in their household because the infection risk within a household is much the same.

She says ideally the two partners should stay in their own households.

Alternatively, they might want to test the strength of their relationship and try living together, she says.

But it is switching from one household to another that creates the problem, she says.


Q: Is it right that people who do not want to go into work are made to do so?

Hancock says if people are being asked to work in a workplace that should be closed, then the government will enforce that close.

Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, says most employers are being responsible.

If workers are not comfortable coming into work, they should speak to their employer.

Q: What happens if both parents fall ill and have a young child to look after?

Harries says the government cannot draw up guidelines for every scenario. She says what is important is to apply the principles.

She says you also have to consider the other risks. A small child is vulnerable. If adults cannot look after the child, that is an exceptional circumstance. If no one is able to look after the child, the local authority should be able to help.

Matt Hancock holds government's daily coronavirus press conference

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is holding the daily government press conference now.

He starts by quoting the latest figures for coronavirus deaths. (See 3.54pm.)

He says today he is launching a scheme for NHS volunteers.

He says he can announce that 11,788 former health staff have agreed to return to help out. They include 2,660 doctors, more than 2,000 other clinical staff and 6,147 nurses.

And he says 5,500 final year medical students and 1,800 final year student nurses will be going into work early.

He adds that he can announce a new emergency hospital, NHS Nightingale, is opening at the ExCel centre in London. (See 3.07pm.) He says it will have two wards which each have space for 2,000 patients.


Sunak rules out specific support package for entire aviation sector

Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has decided against creating a specific support package for the aviation industry, which is suffering from a collapse in demand due to coronavirus, PA Media reports. In a letter to airports and airlines, he said the government is prepared to enter into negotiations with individual companies once they have “exhausted other options” such as raising cash from existing investors.

Karen Dee, chief executive of trade body the Airport Operators Association (AOA), said the aviation industry was “surprised” by Sunak’s decision and will have to “fight on its own to protect its workforce and its future”. She went on:

While countries across Europe have recognised the vital role airports play and are stepping into the breach, the UK government’s decision to take a case-by-case approach with dozens of UK airports is simply not feasible to provide the support necessary in the coming days.

Not only does the decision today leave airports struggling to provide critical services, it will hamper the UK recovery.


The Peak District — the oldest national park in the UK - has closed all of its offices, ranger hubs and visitor facilities including car parks and asked visitors to stay away to protect local communities and staff during the outbreak.

Sarah Fowler, chief executive of the Peak District National Park, said until very recently it seemed “almost unthinkable that we would arrive at a situation where I have, and must, ask those who do not live in, or work on essential services in, the Peak District to please stay away.”

We have weathered many challenges in our almost 70-year history and, when the time is right, we will once again welcome everyone to this place which so many millions of us love and hold dear. It is so often in these extraordinary circumstances that we learn the importance of nature, beauty and history to our health and sense of wellbeing. That’s why I feel so strongly that our individual efforts now to take on this battle against coronavirus are so important – so that we may once again be able to let nature help our personal and collective recovery.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is due to hold the government’s daily press conference shortly.

He will be taking questions remotely, via Zoom, and selected journalists will be taking part and putting the questions to him. The entire press conference will also be on BBC News and Sky.

Fire and rescue services will cease most home fire safety checks and avoid hospitals, care homes, and residences with vulnerable people to limit coronavirus cross-infection between firefighters and the public, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and fire and rescue bosses have agreed.

Firefighters and control staff will provide a “critical risk-based service” to ensure that residents remain protected during the Covid-19 outbreak. Any requests from central or devolved governments for further support will be considered by all sides.

Matt Wrack, FBU general secretary, said:

In this ever-accelerating crisis, it’s vital for public safety that fire and rescue services continue to keep people safe. To do that, our crews must be kept safe too. We can’t help people if we are infected.

Some services are already losing hundreds of staff to coronavirus so we must do everything we can to further minimise the risk of cross-infection between firefighters and the public. This will help protect vulnerable members of the public and ensure that we have enough healthy firefighters to respond to emergencies during this crisis.

The Church of England is closing all its churches, including for private prayer and funerals, with immediate effect.

The only churches permitted to stay open under strict limits are those running food banks.

Church weddings and funerals are banned, and the only baptisms will be emergency ones in a hospital or private home. Even priests are barred from praying in churches.

The church’s bishops, along with the archbishops of Canterbury and York, have written to clergy saying: “Our belonging to Christ has never been measured by the number of people in church on a Sunday morning ... but by the service we offer.

“Therefore, and despite these very harrowing restrictions, please do all you can to minister to your people safely, especially to the sick, the vulnerable and the poor.”

The bishops urge clergy to live stream prayer and worship from their homes. The C of E will offer a weekly service each Sunday which will be broadcast via social media.

The church said about five million people tuned into a service on Sunday led by the archbishop of Canterbury and broadcast on dozens of radio stations. It said it was the largest single “congregation” in the church’s history.


The chief constable of one of England’s busiest police forces has been talking about the pressures on police during the crisis.

Ian Hopkins, who headsGreater Manchester police (GMP), said officers did not have sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE) and that he had raised the issue with Priti Patel, the home secretary.

Around a tenth of the force are currently off sick or self-isolating (1,066 police officers and staff ), he said, leaving the rest stretched but still able to respond to true emergency calls.

But he expressed despair after the force received 180 calls between 7am and 10am today to ask questions such as “‘can I take my car for its MOT?” and “‘can I pick my daughter up at Manchester airport?”

He said:

Please don’t ring us with those calls. Use common sense. There’s a lot of information on By ringing us with that sort of stuff you are stopping us dealing with the things that we should be.

Hopkins said between 3,500 and 4,000 frontline GMP officers were being given “surgical-style” face masks and gloves but that they needed “fluid resistant” face masks:

This is a national logistical issue. We are working really hard with national police chiefs and I had a personal telephone call with the home secretary on Sunday evening raising it all with her and she’s given me an assurance they are working on the logistics.

I’m hoping we will be able to have those masks by the end of the week as well as further supplies of antibacterial wipes and gels. At the moment we are giving them [officers] basic equipment to protect themselves but we want then to have the higher standard of equipment as soon as possible.

We are saying [to our officers] we can provide you with a basic level of protection but what we really want to do is provide an enhanced level.


Charities have expressed shock over the absence of an on-screen British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter during the prime minister’s broadcast last night, calling it “appalling” and “unacceptable”.

Action on Hearing Loss tweeted: “Shocking not to see a #BSL interpreter translate the most important public health message in a generation -@10DowningStreet must do better. We’re working with other organisations to make all public announcements accessible to everyone.”

Shocking not to see a #BSL interpreter translate the most important public health message in a generation -@10DowningStreet must do better. We’re working with other organisations to make all public announcements accessible to everyone.

— Action On Hearing Loss (@ActionOnHearing) March 24, 2020

The NRCPD said: “We are absolutely appalled that there was no #BSLInterpreter tonight for one of the most important speeches by Boris Johnson. Scotland can do it - why can’t Boris Johnson? This is unacceptable. #Deaf #EqualAccess

We are absolutely appalled that there was no #BSLInterpreter tonight for one of the most important speeches by Boris Johnson. Scotland can do it - why can’t Boris Johnson? This is unacceptable. #Deaf #EqualAccess

— NRCPD (@NRCPD) March 23, 2020

The Royal Association for Deaf People has posted a transcript on its Facebook page.

In light of no BSL interpreter on @BBCNews pls see our #BSL Coronavirus Update 23.03.20

Transcript on our FB @DeafLGBTIQA @Deaf_4_Deaf @lovelanguageltd @UKDeafCouncil @ActionDeafness @Limping_Chicken @SignHealth @StopChanges2AtW @ASLIuk @FryLegal

— Royal Deaf (@royaldeaf) March 23, 2020


UK not taking part in EU procurement schemes for ventilators and other coronavirus equipment

The British government is not taking part in European Union procurement schemes to buy ventilators, protective gear for medical staff or coronavirus testing kit, the Guardian understands.

UK and EU sources confirmed the government is not currently participating in any of the EU’s bulk-buying schemes linked to tackling coronavirus.

The UK’s absence from the schemes emerged as the European commission declared on Tuesday that a joint effort to buy protective medical gear on behalf of 25 member states was “a success”.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European commission president, said a joint procurement initiative had generated “concrete offers of considerable scale at short notice” to supply EU countries with different kinds of surgical masks, gloves, goggles, face shields and overalls. She said:

This material should soon provide considerable relief in Italy, Spain and in 23 more member states. Now it is up to the member states to sign the necessary contracts swiftly.

The commission said it expected the equipment to be available two weeks after the member states leading the procurement sign the contracts.

Two other procurement schemes, to supply ventilators and laboratory equipment needed for coronavirus testing, are at an earlier stage, with calls for tenders launched last week. Nearly all EU countries, 25 out of 27, are participating in the procurement scheme on ventilators, while 19 are joining forces to buy laboratory equipment.

The Brexit transition agreement means the government has the right to take part in EU joint procurement. Under David Cameron, the government signed the EU’s joint procurement agreement in 2014, which was drawn up after some member states experienced shortages of medical kit during the H1N1 pandemic.

The logic behind joint procurement is to reduce administration, get better prices through bulk purchasing power and take advantage of medical purchasing skills that may not be equally shared (something especially useful for smaller countries).

British officials have not ruled out joining an EU procurement scheme and stress the NHS will get everything it needs to tackle the pandemic. Meanwhile Boris Johnson recently called on manufacturers to make 20,000 ventilators “at speed”, as the government prepares for a surge in people needing intensive care.


Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, says he is asking retired rail staff to return to work to cover for any shortages generated by coronavirus.

To ensure those who absolutely-need-to-travel are able to safely I’m requesting the rail industry ask retired staff including signallers to assist in this great national effort to beat #coronavirusuk. No one should travel unless it's essential. Stay Home, Protect NHS, Save Lives!

— Rt Hon Grant Shapps MP (@grantshapps) March 24, 2020

Death toll in UK rises by 87 to 422

As of 9am on 24 March, a total of 90,436 have been tested: 82,359 negative. 8,077 positive.

As of 1pm, 422 patients who tested positive for coronavirus have sadly died.

UPDATE on coronavirus (#COVID19) testing in the UK:

As of 9am on 24 March, a total of 90,436 have been tested:

82,359 negative.
8,077 positive.

As of 1pm, 422 patients who tested positive for coronavirus have sadly died.

The digital dashboard will be updated later today.

— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) March 24, 2020

NHS England said a further 83 people had died in England, bringing the total number of deaths there to 386.

Patients were aged between 33 and 103 years old and all were in vulnerable groups including those with underlying conditions.


A children’s nursery in Cornwall has been forced to close for key workers after burglars caused extensive damage.

Daisy Fays Nursery in Chiverton Cross, near Truro, was broken in to over the weekend. Two gas canisters were stolen and significant damage caused to the front entrance. A spokesman for Devon and Cornwall police said:

The nursery had been due to open this week for those children with parents identified as key workers by the government as part of the Covid-19 response strategy.

It was unable to due to the damage caused, meaning parents who are hospital staff were denied childcare.

The force was appealing for anyone with information to get in touch.

A children’s nursery near Truro has been forced to close for “key workers” after burglars caused extensive damage

— DevonCornwall Police (@DC_Police) March 24, 2020


The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) has described the chancellor’s decision to collect March’s beer duty payments as “incredibly disappointing” and “a huge blow” for the UK’s army of small independent brewers.

Brewers have been calling on the chancellor to unilaterally cancel the payment, due to be debited from bank accounts on Wednesday, in the face of decimated sales following physical distancing measures including pub, bar and restaurant closures, and as of last night the closing of takeaway sales for beer businesses.

Siba says the average small brewer will be saddled with a beer duty bill of around £5,000, but for larger companies it could be as much as £500,000.

James Calder, Siba’s chief executive, said:

Siba has been calling for the cancellation of beer duty for over a week and it is incredibly disappointing that the chancellor has decided not to act, given he knows how poor the answer rate and experience on the helpline is.

The chancellor has left brewers with few options if they are unsuccessful in reaching the helpline. There will be brewers tomorrow who will have thousands of pounds direct debited from their accounts by HMRC. This is a huge blow for the UK’s small independent brewers.

Brewers are urged to phone the HMRC “time to pay” helpline, which HMRC says is now fully staffed, but a poll of small brewers by Siba showed that only 21% have been able to get through.


First UK death of hospital-acquired coronavirus

An 80-year-old woman is the first person in the UK to die after contracting coronavirus in hospital, our colleague, Matthew Weaver, reports.

Marita Edwards, a retired cleaner and keen golfer, went to Newport’s Royal Gwent hospital for a routine gallbladder operation on 28 February.

The otherwise fit 80-year-old then caught an infection in hospital that she and her family were initially told was pneumonia. Last Thursday, almost three weeks after arriving at the hospital, she tested positive for Covid-19 and died the following day.

“If she had not been in hospital she would be still be alive,” said her son, Stuart Loud. “Clearly there was a coronavirus infection in the hospital which claimed my mum’s life.”

Her death raises questions about the hospital’s failure to test earlier for the disease and what precautions it took to curb its spread among patients and staff.

You can read the full story here.


Food banks are “extremely concerned” about staying open following the government’s clampdown on activity and are appealing for urgent clarification on how they can most safely operate, PA Media reports.

An increasing number of members of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) are worried they may need to close amid efforts to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Food banks are concerned about potentially spreading Covid-19 among service users and an ageing volunteer base, and are also faced with venue closures and reduced access to food supplies.

They are calling for guidance on how to best run doorstep food delivery operations, with some food banks turning to this model to avoid volunteers and service users gathering in one spot. They also want advice for volunteers sorting through donations, packing emergency food parcels and setting up areas for distribution.

IFAN coordinator Sabine Goodwin said most of IFAN’s 293 food aid provider members had expressed concern about potentially having to close.

Independent food banks and food aid providers will do their utmost to stay open, but they’re having to make incredibly difficult decisions about the safety of their staff and volunteers and how exactly to support those in need in their communities with little guidance; reduced or no food supply; and increasing desperation in their midst.

Among the questions, food providers want to know if they need paperwork to continue operating, and, amid closures of churches and community buildings, they are asking whether these should be kept open for food distribution requirements.

If a provider is forced to shut, it also needs clarification on which agency or agencies will take responsibility for the people who would have previously been supported by the food bank.


Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, told LBC this morning that he argued at the Cobra emergency committee meeting that construction workers should be told to stay away from work, but that he was over-ruled by Boris Johnson.

Downing Street (see 2.32pm) and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister (see 9.50am), have been defending the decision to let some construction work in England carry on. In Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, has said work on buildings sites should halt.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, leaving a meeting in No 10 last week.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, leaving a meeting in No 10 last week. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

London’s ExCeL centre being converted into emergency hospital

London’s ExCeL conference centre will become an emergency hospital treating coronavirus patients “within days”, with 500 beds initially made available at what will be the first of several crisis facilities dotted around the UK.

The cavernous 100,000 sq metre (25-acre) Docklands site is being converted in a high-speed operation involving military planners and personnel and its capacity will rise quickly from the initial 500 beds, defence sources added.

It is to deal with a surge in coronavirus patients because it is expected that London’s hospitals and their existing intensive care beds will soon be overflowing as patients with severe breathing difficulties are treated.

Defence sources said more than one emergency hospital would built around the UK, although London is first because the rate of coronavirus infections is considered to be running 1.5 to 2.5 weeks ahead. “We will service and support the whole of the United Kingdom,” a source added.

The ExceL centre in Docklands, London.
The ExCeL centre in Docklands, London. Photograph: drserg/Getty Images


A West Midlands police force has had to deal with a large group of at least 20 people having an outdoor barbecue, less than 24 hours after the prime minister placed the country in lockdown.

In a tweet, Foleshill police wrote:

Unbelievably, we’ve just had to deal with 20+ people having a BBQ!! Please listen to government advice else this will get worse and will last longer!!

Unbelievably, we’ve just had to deal with 20+ people having a BBQ!! Please listen to government advice else this will get worse and will last longer!! #RIPBBQ #COVID19 #StayHome #Foleshill #Coventry

— Foleshill Police (@FoleshillWMP) March 24, 2020


A £1m Netflix donation has been announced to help support the creative community following the coronavirus pandemic.

A Covid-19 film and TV emergency relief fund will be administered by the Film and TV Charity, with support from the BFI.

ANNOUNCED!📢Alongside the @BFI we've set up a new COVID-19 Film and TV Emergency Relief Fund with a £1m donation from @NetflixUK to support the industry with short-term relief for workers who are directly affected by the #coronavirus. Read more>

— The Film and TV Charity (@FilmTVCharity) March 24, 2020

We're currently working on the precise criteria & level of individual funding but the fund will be open to those working in production, distribution and exhibition. To be the first to hear when the fund launches, join our mailing list>

— The Film and TV Charity (@FilmTVCharity) March 24, 2020

But if you need immediate and urgent support you can still apply for our existing hardship fund, offering grants of up to £500 to provide stop-gap support. Details on how to apply can be found here >

— The Film and TV Charity (@FilmTVCharity) March 24, 2020

Alex Pumfrey, the chief executive of the Film and TV Charity, said:

The film and TV industry is now facing a huge threat. Many freelancers have seen their livelihoods disappear overnight.

We’re entering a period of unprecedented isolation and worry for a workforce that we know from our research already suffers from poor mental health.

Which is why I’m incredibly pleased that Netflix and the BFI are working with us to kick-start this new Covid-19 film and TV emergency relief fund to support workers across the UK’s film and TV industry.

ANNOUNCED: Alongside @FilmTVCharity we have set up a new COVID-19 Film & TV Emergency Relief Fund with a £1m donation from @NetflixUK to help support the film and TV community who have been directly affected by the coronavirus pandemic #BFIIndustry

— BFI (@BFI) March 24, 2020


In the Commons the Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne asks Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to confirm that it is acceptable for workmen to carry out repairs in people’s homes under the new guidelines. Swayne says he thinks that should be fine as long as people are not self-isolating because they are ill, or in a shielded group.

Hancock says he thinks people should only get repairs done at home if they are essential.

Raab criticised over Foreign Office support for Britons stranded

Earlier Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, answered an urgent question in the Commons about Britons who are stranded abroad. The Conservative Caroline Nokes, who tabled the UQ, was scathing about the performance of the Foreign Office. Describing the experience of those abroad, she said:

An inability to get through to consular services on the phone, a standard acknowledgement email telling them to contact their tour operator, airline or insurer, an increasing inability to find accommodation. Hotels are shutting, flights are cancelled, borders are closed and there are no routes home. Many are hours away from large airports in countries operating curfews.

To them, it looks like [Raab’s] words of last week were empty and I ask him today as I asked him last week to explain how he is working with airlines with unused planes, parked at airports around the globe to bring our people home. He must get the process fully under way. The vision of British citizens sleeping rough on the streets of Caracas is not a good one.

Raab replied:

She said that embassies had been closed. Actually it’s a very small number of posts that have to be closed …

A large chunk of the consular staff work from home. That’s not a decision that we made, it is a decision forced upon us.

Dominic Raab.
Dominic Raab. Photograph: House of Commons/PA


Glastonbury festival has donated thousands of litres of hand sanitiser, gloves and face masks to frontline emergency services responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

The supplies were due to be used during the now-postponed 50th anniversary of the music festival, which was scheduled to take place in June.

Avon and Somerset police tweeted images of a forklift loading supplies into a van, as well as a police vehicle being loaded with boxes of medical-grade gloves.

The festival announced on 18 March that its 50th anniversary event would have to be postponed until 2021.

On behalf of the A&S Local Resilience Forum we’d like to extend a huge thank you to Michael & @emilyeavis for providing frontline emergency service workers & NHS staff with thousands of litres of hand sanitiser, gloves & face masks due to be used @glastonbury 2020. #SafeTogether

— Avon and Somerset Police (@ASPolice) March 24, 2020


Nadine Dorries, the health minister, is in the Commons chamber alongside Matt Hancock for today’s statement. She had coronavirus but has recovered.

Matt Hancock gives a shout out to Health Minister Nadine Dorries, who is back in the Chamber after getting and recovering from coronavirus

— Kate Ferguson (@kateferguson4) March 24, 2020

Volunteer carers as well as professional ones included in exemption from stay-at-home rule, says Hancock

In the Commons David Davis, a former Conservative cabinet minister, asked for clarification about the line in the government guidelines saying people should be able to leave home to provide care or help for a vulnerable person. Davis said this should not just cover professional carers.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that volunteer carers were included too. But wherever possible they should try to observe the two-metre rule, he said.

  • Volunteer carers are covered by the rules saying they do not need to stay at home as well as professionals, Hancock says.
Matt Hancock in the Commons this afternoon.
Matt Hancock in the Commons this afternoon. Photograph: House of Commons/PA


Opticians and dentists are being told to suspend routine appointments as part of stricter measures to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

Guidance issued by health authorities and industry bodies to optical practices advises them to focus on essential or urgent care only during the outbreak, particularly for key workers. Meanwhile, the British Dental Association is advocating that dental professionals treat emergency cases only.

Specsavers said it would be suspending all routine testing “for the foreseeable future”. Its chief executive, John Perkins, said:

We may be closing our stores for business as usual, but will remain open for care, particularly for key workers.

Our desire is to continue to provide essential and urgent services to the communities we serve, as well as online and telephone advice for those who need it.

An update for our community

— Specsavers UK (@Specsavers) March 24, 2020

A spokeswoman for Boots said:

To help protect the health and well-being of our customers and colleagues Boots Opticians and Hearingcare stores across the UK will also temporarily close.

A small number of Boots Opticians hubs will remain open to care for those with essential eyecare needs.

*UPDATE* To help protect the health and well-being of our customers and colleagues in these challenging times, today we have made the decision to temporarily close our Opticians and Hearingcare stores across the UK

— Boots (@BootsUK) March 23, 2020

A small number of Boots Opticians and Hearingcare stores will remain open to care for those with essential eye and hearing care needs. Customers can view a list of these stores at or from tomorrow Tuesday 24th March.

— Boots (@BootsUK) March 23, 2020


Jeremy Hunt tells Hancock he is concerned there is still not enough coronavirus testing

In the Commons Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is making a Commons statement about the new restrictions. In his opening remarks he summarised what the PM announced last night.

Jeremy Hunt, Hancock’s predecessor, has just asked a question. He wanted to know when routine coronavirus testing in the community would resume. He said he was concerned there was still not enough testing.

The concern is that we appear to be testing on a daily basis virtually no more people than over a week ago when the commitment was to increase the daily amount of tests from 5,000 to 25,000 tests.

And given that this is a vital part of the success of the suppression strategies in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, can he give us an estimated date when we will get back to routine covid-19 testing in the community of all suspected cases?

Hancock said he could not give a date for that, because he did not know when the new test kits would arrive. But millions were coming within the next few days and weeks, he said.

I’m not going to give him [Hunt] such a date today because we are in the middle of buying the tests that are needed and especially the new tests that have just come on stream.

I have been able to give him the update that we have now purchased millions of these tests which are arriving in the next days and weeks and I’ll be in a position to give him a more concrete timetable and make sure he gets that as soon as we can make it public.


University staff in the UK will be relieved to hear that the Research Excellence Framework (Ref) 2021 has officially been put on hold, to take pressure off academic staff.

The announcement ends uncertainty over the massive exercise that was to get under way this year. The quadrennial exercise is used to rank departments on the quality and impact of their research and is a crucial component of determining research funding.

The announcement from the REF management states:

We recognise that institutions are needing to divert staff resource to other critical areas, including for those working in clinical and health-related fields. We wish to reassure institutions that such activities should be prioritised without concern for the effect on REF preparations. We are putting the exercise on hold until further notice to enable this, and are now working on the adapted details of the framework.

Further details can be found here.


Downing Street lobby briefing - Summary

Here are the main points from the Downing Street lobby briefing. For the second day, it was conducted entirely by conference call.

  • The prime minister’s spokesman said the police would be given the power to impose fines on people who do not comply with the rules announced yesterday. The fines would initially be set at £30, but the level could increase “significantly”, he said. He said that the power to impose these fines would be in place by Thursday, and that they would be used in particular to stop gatherings of more than two people in public. This power would be introduced by regulation in England under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act, he said. He said Wales would bring in its own regulations, and that Scotland and Northern Ireland would get the power to act under the coronavirus bill.
  • The spokesman said further guidance on how the new restrictions apply would be issued, probably later today.
  • The spokesman says 5,605 people were tested for coronavirus yesterday. Over the last week, 39,840 tests have been carried out, he said. And he said the total number of tests carried out is 83,945.
  • The spokesman defended the government’s decision to write to research institutes at the weekend asking for equipment that could be used to help carry out tests (see 11.20am), saying it was “no secret that we are rapidly scaling up our efforts to boost testing capacity”. A government source also questioned the Politico Europe report, saying Sunday was not the first time that the private sector and others had been asked for help. The source said this has been going on for weeks.
  • The spokesman dismissed the suggestion from Jeremy Hunt that the government may have left it too late to avoid the UK following Italy. (See 9.50am.) Asked about this, the spokesman said the government’s policy had been based on the advice of the medical and scientific experts
  • The spokesman was unable to say what protection was available for workers being told to go to work when they think their job is not essential. Asked about workers in this situation, the spokesman said that the government had produced a list of businesses that should close and that it expected employers to comply. When pressed further, the spokesman said this was “a direct instruction from the government and we would expect employers to adhere to it”
  • The spokesman said the government was in favour of construction work continuing in England in certain circumstances. Asked about this, he said:

It should continue where it can happen in a way that follows Public Health England and industry guidance. We urge employers to use their common sense when managing live projects and ensuring that employees can follow the government guidance and practice safe social distancing on site.

  • The spokesman indicated that further advice might be given to explain what people should do if they lived apart from their boyfriend or girlfriend, particularly if one partner lived in a shared house. The spokesman said he he thought the guidance was clear, and that people should “follow the rules ... in a commons sense way”. but he acknowledged that some further clarification might be helpful.
  • The spokesman said that only around 10% of pupils went to schools in England. Those were pupils allowed to go to school because they were deemed vulnerable, or because their parents are key workers.
  • The spokesman said there were no plans to restrict public transport to key workers.
  • The spokesman said Boris Johnson has raised concerns with Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, about too many people using the underground in London. This is from HuffPost’s Paul Waugh.

Also feels like PM and @SadiqKhan clash over Tube overcrowding. No.10 spokesman reveals "The PM raised with  the mayor the issue of reduced services on the Tube and its impact on people trying to get to work." Feels like blame game has begun. Ex-Mayor versus current one.

— Paul Waugh (@paulwaugh) March 24, 2020
  • The spokesman said prisons had stopped visits today to comply with social distancing rules.

Sports Direct employees have told the PA news agency they feel their lives are “undervalued” because they are still being made to work despite stores being closed to the public.

The retailer said on Tuesday that it would shut stores in a major U-turn after initially saying its high-street shops would continue to sell sports and fitness equipment in the face of coronavirus.

However, the company said its factories and warehouses would remain open and deliveries to customers would continue, all with physical distancing in place.

A sign in a Sports Direct window reading 'This store is temporarily closed'
“I feel massively at risk and I feel like my health, life and family … are undervalued,” said one factory worker after Sports Direct closed its stores to the public but kept its factories and warehouses open. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

An anonymous employee told PA that Sports Direct full-time shop staff were also being told they had to work in-store despite the closures in order to receive their wages, “doing tasks they deem as essential such as valuations for stock and web orders”. They said:

Part-timers are out of work now and we have no idea whether we can claim anything because technically they are still open.

Another worker, who also wished to remain anonymous, said they have been with Sports Direct since they were 16, adding that their partner was also employed by the company. They told PA:

I cuddled a scared and confused five-year-old to bed last night knowing that his mum and dad could risk potentially bringing in the virus for the sake of some fitness equipment.

The worker added that the company has not provided protective equipment and only recently heeded physical distancing advice.

There have been no gloves sent to store and they only yesterday asked us to put a metre distance between ourselves and the customers by setting out a table for the chip-and-pins.

Factory worker Leonnie Foster, from Worksop, Nottinghamshire, told PA she would have to continue in her role despite the announcement.

We are expected to go into work with thousands of others and, due to the nature of the job, it is unrealistic to stand two metres away from people at all times.

I feel massively at risk and I feel like my health, life and family, as I still live at home with my parents and sister, are undervalued.

There are more workers at the factory than in shops so our chances of getting this virus are much higher … the factory needs to shut as well to protect all the staff.


Nicola Sturgeon has updated the Holyrood parliament this afternoon, as the Scottish government’s health secretary announced a quadrupling of intensive care beds.

Speaking in the chamber, where chairs have been removed to ensure that members sit a safe distance apart, Sturgeon set out further guidance for businesses, saying it was employers who should make decisions about who was going into work, rather than leaving it to employees to worry about this.

The first minister said if staff could work from home, employers should allow them to.

If staff cannot work from home, employers should ask whether they are contributing to fighting the coronavirus, and ask if they can operate their business in line with safe social distancing practices.

The health secretary, Jeane Freeman, then announced that NHS Scotland was making good progress on doubling ICU capacity, and beds were being freed up “so we are planning to quadruple ICU beds to over 700”.

She added that the health service would continue to prioritise testing in hospitals and to ensure staff could get back to work as quickly as possible. She added that the government was working to secure personal protective equipment required for frontline healthcare staff.


Staff in the Houses of Parliament are becoming increasingly concerned that they are facing unnecessary health risks because they are required to attend Westminster so that MPs can pursue non-urgent business which is unrelated to the coronavirus outbreak.

The FDA union, which represents senior clerks, has written to John Benger, the clerk of the house, to protest about non-coronavirus business still being pursued in parliament this week, the Guardian has learned.

The letter comes amid a swirl of rumours that parliament could be asked to shut down early following Boris Johnson’s decision on Tuesday to impose unprecedented restrictions on the movement on UK citizens.

Amy Leversidge, the FDA’s assistant general secretary, said the union’s members who include senior clerks are being exposed to unnecessary risks:

It appears that nobody in parliament is willing to show leadership and make the decision to limit all business of the house to only issues related to coronavirus.

Last night the prime minister effectively put the country into lockdown and MPs will not have any credibility instructing the public to socially distance and instructing businesses to limit their work if they don’t do the same. It is important that parliament sets the example to the rest of the country.

The Conservative MP Peter Bone told the Guardian he would be withdrawing his two private member’s bills – the parliamentary constituencies (amendment) bill and the hospitals (parking charges and business rates) bill. He said:

MPs cannot expect the public to make huge sacrifices and still expect to carry on as normal.

The House of Commons media team was approached for comment.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for the House of Commons said:

We are balancing our responsibility to allow parliament to function with a responsibility to do all we can to keep our workforce safe and well, and that balance is under constant review.

Any changes to the sitting of the house would be for the house itself to decide via a motion tabled by the government.


With many people planning to use the coming weeks to do home improvements and gardening, the British Society for Surgery of the Hand is urging people to take extra care to avoid gardening accidents and injuries that could place unnecessary pressure on the NHS.

Hand surgeons are concerned that an increase in the number of people using power tools, lawn mowers and hedge trimmers could lead to a rise in serious injuries, putting strain on an already overburdened health service.

Kingfisher, which owns B&Q and Screwfix, reported a 37% increase in like-for-like sales last week, following growth of almost 9% the week before.

Data released by NHS Digital in 2019 showed there were almost 4,800 admissions to hospital for injuries caused by drills and other power tools in just 12 months, with common injuries including fingers that have been chopped off by a lawnmower or power tool, as well as deep cuts caused by hedge trimmers, and infections following people pricking their skin on thorns.

You can find more advice on the BSSH website.

Updated guidelines for #HandTrauma management during COVID-19 are available, please download!

We urge the public to exercise extra caution when doing gardening💐 and DIY🛠️, especially if operating power tools #StaySafeStayHome


— British Society for Surgery of the Hand (@BSSHand) March 23, 2020


The Co-op is the latest supermarket to introduce new measures as part of efforts to ensure physical distancing is adhered to during the coronavirus outbreak.

Floor markers will define a one-metre distance in front of payment kiosks and a two-metre spacing for customers in queues. Its stores will also limit the number of customers in the store at any one time, while the number of tills open will be reduced to allow greater distance between customers.

The changes will apply to all its 2,600 shops in the UK which, as convenience outlets, tend to be relatively small with narrow aisles.

Both Waitrose and Lidl announced strategies today to help protect both staff and customers, which include installing screens at checkout areas.

A Co-op spokesperson said:

We are committed to serving customers and encouraging social distancing when people shop. We would like to thank all our customers for their support and understanding and urge them to follow the government advice to stay at home and only shop for essential items.

The government lockdown announced on Monday included the closure of all “non-essential” stores. The new rules stipulate that retailers remaining open, such as supermarkets, must ensure there is physical distancing between customers and staff and that shoppers enter in small groups, so that spaces do not become crowded.


People face fines starting at £30 for breaking rule about holding gatherings in public, No 10 says

The Downing Street lobby briefing has just finished. The prime minister’s spokesman said the police would be given the power to fine people who break the rule about holding gatherings of more than two people in public. The fines will initially be set at £30, but the level could increase “significantly” if there is widespread evidence of people refusing to comply with the rules, the spokesman said.

I will post a full summary of the briefing shortly.


Deaths in Scotland rise by 2 to 16

Two more people in Scotland have died after testing positive for Covid-19, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said, taking the total to 16.


A man jogging through an empty Windrush Square in Brixton in London today.
A man jogging through an empty Windrush Square in Brixton in London today. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

Hospitals are being sent the wrong personal protective equipment to guard against Covid-19, forcing doctors and nurses to take time away from the frontline to get refitted and learn how to use it, our colleagues Denis Campbell and Sarah Marsh report.

Hospital bosses have voiced frustration that they are receiving different sorts of face masks to the ones they usually use and for which have been tested. The masks are vital protection for medical staff as they repel moisture droplets from infected patients.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, has highlighted the problem as a flaw in the government and NHS’s drive to tackle shortages of PPE among frontline staff.

One intensive care nurse at a hospital in Yorkshire told the Guardian how she had had to spend £100 of her own money to buy a full FFP3 respirator mask online. In her unit on Monday, there were no masks or surgical gowns, another vital piece of PPE kit which has also been in short supply. Some staff have resorted to making makeshift PPE , sometimes with clinical waste bags.

You can read the full exclusive story here.


Wetherspoons boss criticised for advising staff to consider getting job with supermarket

Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin has told staff to “go work at Tesco” instead as the pub firm warned staff they could face delays over pay.

As PA Media reports, the company, which employs 40,000 people, shut all its pubs on Friday after Boris Johnson ordered sites to shut until further notice in response to coronavirus.

In a video message to staff, Martin said the firm will pay staff for all work done until the shutdown, when its pubs last opened, but will not make any further payments to staff until the government fulfils its promise to cover 80% of the wages of workers impacted by the virus. He urged people to consider working for a supermarket instead. He said:

I’ve very sorry about the situation that’s occurred with our pubs.

I know that almost all our trade now has gone to supermarkets.

Not only our trade, but the trade from cafes, leisure centres and restaurants.

So we have had lots of calls from supermarkets, Tesco alone want 20,000 people to join them.

That’s half the number of people who work in our pubs.

If I’m honest, I say you can get the furlough payments and stay at home.

If you’re offered a job at a supermarket, many of you will want to do that.

If you think it’s a good idea, do it. I can completely understand it.

If you’ve worked for us before I promise you we will give you first preference if you want to come back.

The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) described Martin’s approach as “completely unacceptable”. Ian Hodson, the BFAWU president, said:

[Martin] is ignoring the advice of the government to stand by your workers and instead abandoning them in their time of need.

They need to pay rent, buy food and because of the low wages he’s always paid them will not have savings to depend upon.

His selfish approach says unless the government puts money into my bank account today he’ll let the workers who have made him rich suffer.

It is completely unacceptable.

A Wetherspoons pub in Accrington.
A Wetherspoons pub in Accrington. Photograph: Mark Waugh/The Observer


Lorry drivers in the frontline of maintaining vital food and other supplies are continuing to be ostracised and denied access to toilet and hand-washing facilities at hubs servicing major UK companies around the country - despite an intervention by Public Health England.

Amid reports of drivers turning up at distribution centres to find that social distancing measures in communal waiting areas are lax or non existent, the government is now being asked by hauliers’ representatives to make a public statement urging companies to impose safer practices.

Since the Guardian first reported on the issue last week, drivers have been sending the Guardian photos of notices telling them that they can’t use onsite facilities.

They included a letter by Thomas Tunnock Ltd telling drivers that changes had been implemented at its factory in Uddingston, South Lanarkshire, and that they would not be allowed to enter or use any facilities at Tunnock’s.

The company appeared to do a U-turn after it was approached by the Guardian, saying that drivers delivering goods and materials to its factory would continue to have access to toilets and wash hand basins.

Other reports suggest that notices banning drivers from toilets and washrooms continued to be an issue. They include facilities at service stations and situations where businesses have erected porta cabins but without hand washing.

“Anecdotally we’ve heard that some firms have done the right thing in response but we’re still hearing about drivers being denied access even now,” said a spokesperson for the Road Haulage Association.


The courts in England and Wales are gradually moving towards a position where only “urgent” cases will be heard during the health crisis. The Ministry of Justice admits the situation remains “fluid”.

As many as 35 crown court trials which have already started and are moving towards the jury retiring for their verdicts are being completed where possible.

The Crown Prosecution Service has issued guidance saying it will only participate in “urgent” magistrate court hearings, including overnight custody cases, breach of bail as well as interim custody and bail applications. It hopes that many will be conducted via remote video links.

Barristers have been advised by the Bar Council not to attend in person unless they are in a part-heard trial or an urgent case.

Some lawyers who did turn up found judges absent or somewhat bewildered court staff. One barrister, Joe Rarbet, tweeted:

I’ve just arrived at Hendon magistrates court for a non-custody trial that I was fully expecting to be adjourned yesterday. Building open as normal and court staff appear to be under the impression everything is carrying on?

Steven Littlewood, national officer for the FDA union, which represents CPS prosecutors, welcomed the restrictions on physical hearings but said:

We have become increasingly concerned about reports from our members of insanitary conditions and poor facilities in courts in recent weeks. We’ve had members in tears about being asked to go into courts where staff are crammed in together and there is no soap or hand sanitiser.


Grimsby fish market, the UK’s second largest wholesale fish auction, is to close temporarily on Thursday after the government tightened restrictions on social distancing.

Martyn Boyers, the chief executive, said it was difficult to maintain distancing in the traditional auction and business was tough after a collapse in the price of fish. He said: “A lot of fish and chip shops have closed and the supermarkets have shut their fresh fish counters.”

He said the market would continue to accept and distribute fish but was working on ways that this could be presold after the final auction on Thursday. “When you have testing circumstances you have to start coming up with ideas,” he said.


The government’s regular coronavirus press conference will take place virtually later today, Downing Street said.

The chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, and the deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, will host the virtual press conference.


A charity offering housing and support services for people living with severe epilepsy, learning and physical difficulties had all its vehicles damaged, written off or stolen last night, leaving its 82 vulnerable residents without a means to attend medical appointments.

The Meath Epilepsy Charity wrote in a post on Facebook:

Amidst all the trouble and anxiety in the world, last night some intruders broke into the Meath Epilepsy Charity and have written off, badly damaged and stolen virtually all of our essential cars and minibuses. Our 82 extremely vulnerable residents still need to get to vital hospital and other medical appointments. These cars were all bought through donations by generous supporters and are essential for the people that we support.

We are working closely with the police and are determined to find the criminals and bring them to justice. On a positive note we would like to thank everyone that is offering financial and other support to the Meath in these unprecedented times. It is very much appreciated. We remain convinced here at this wonderful charity that the good in the local and global community outweighs the bad.


Plaid Cymru has said all major construction sites in Wales should be ordered to close down to protect the health and well-being of workers.

The party’s shadow minister for the economy, Helen Mary Jones, said many builders had turned up to work at building sites on Tuesday morning.

Jones said it was “unacceptable and unethical” to continue asking workers to work on site, thereby risking their health and the health of others unnecessarily.

Fourth death in Northern Ireland

A woman whose mother has become Northern Ireland’s fourth victim of Covid-19 has lambasted the “selfishness” of people who continue to gather in groups.

Brenda Doherty told the PA news agency that her family was “devastated and heartbroken” by the death of mother-of-five Ruth Burke, 82, but proud of a loved one who had unbelievable strength. She paid tribute to NHS staff who cared for her mother.

Doherty said:

To those of you who out there are being so selfish in gathering in packs - wise up. How selfish can you be?

She is deferring celebration of her mother’s life until it is safe to do so.

She added:

If you value life you will stay home to do as we have been asked. My mum may be the fourth person [in Northern Ireland] to pass of Covid-19 but the sad reality is she probably won’t be the last.


Birmingham New Street station has given over one of its empty shop units to the NHS to use as a temporary phlebotomy clinic, to reduce the number of people having to visit hospitals dealing with the increasing number of Covid-19 patients.

The space has been handed over free of charge for six months from Tuesday and will be staffed by medics from University Hospitals Birmingham NHS foundation trust.

Patients at Queen Elizabeth hospital, Heartlands hospital, Good Hope hospital, Solihull hospital and Birmingham chest clinic will be able to use the service.

We've given an empty shop to @uhbtrust so patients needing routine blood tests don't have to visit hospital

The temporary phlebotomy clinic is for patient referrals only

We're doing everything we can to help @NHSuk tackle #coronavirus #COVIDー19

— Birmingham New Street (@NetworkRailBHM) March 24, 2020


The Bar Council, which represents about 17,000 barristers in England and Wales, has told members not to attend court unless strictly necessary.

In updated guidance on Tuesday, following Boris Johnson’s address to the nation on Monday night, the Bar Council said his message was “clear that everyone must stay at home to inhibit all contact and stall the spread of Covid-19”.

URGENT: Update for barristers from the Chair of the Bar, Amanda Pinto QC on attending court following the Prime Minister's latest announcement

— The Bar Council (@thebarcouncil) March 24, 2020

The guidance said barristers should not attend civil or family court hearings unless it was “genuinely urgent” and could not be done remotely, adding: “Such a hearing will be a rare occurrence.”

Regarding crown courts, legal representatives were told not to attend in person unless involved in an ongoing jury trial, and to attempt using remote access for all other cases.


Sunak plays down prospect of scheme to help self-employed being available imminently

This is what Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, told MPs a few minutes ago about why constructing a scheme to protect the self-employed who are losing work because of the coronavirus crisis was so complicated. He said it may require a brand new system. He explained:

We’re looking at pace at what support can be provided.

The fact is that [the 5m group] that we’re dealing with contains such a wide variety of different people where we don’t have the ability to target support - that’s the challenge that we have in designing something that gets to the people that we want it to help whilst at the same time being affordable, not having to benefit absolutely everybody.

That is proving to be problematic, but we are hard at work on it.

In terms of delivery, it is almost certainly going to be the case that we would have to build another brand new system to deliver any support.

I think it’s right, and I’m sure honourable members on both sides of this house would agree, that in terms of prioritising system design, the scheme we have set up for 90% of the workforce that is employed should be delivered first and quickly, and that is what we have committed to do, ideally by the end of April.

Labour’s Wes Streeting pushed him for clarification on this. He said people wanted an announcement very soon.

Sunak said that he “hoped to have something to say very shortly”. But he said that did not mean he would be able to implement a scheme immediately. Implementing the proposals “will take longer”, he said.

Labour’s Kevin Brennan put it to the chancellor that in the context of talking about the self-employed, MPs were asking about people who had lost their entire income overnight. He asked if Sunak could provide some more reassurance that it is his intention to provide help to those people and detail how he is going to do it, as well as asking banks to extend credit on a free basis.

Sunak replied:

Looking at historic tax return data from a year-and-a-half ago gives absolutely no guide to whether someone today who is self-employed is in the situation that they are prosperous and indeed their income may be increasing versus someone who is not.

Of course I am sympathetic to those who are adversely affected by what is going on. is The issue is one of finding a way to target help at those, rather than having something that provides blanket cash subsidies to 5 million people, many of whom will not need it and will end up costing all of our constituents on modest incomes a considerable amount to pay.

So it’s about finding a way to target support on those who most need it and that is what is requiring time and thought.

Treasury spokesman for the Lib Dems, Sir Ed Davey, said the government “has to move as fast as possible” to provide support for self-employed workers who are “literally in many cases simply running out of money”.

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Barclay said:

We know many self-employed people are in distress but we are working urgently to address this problem, and I say to the self-employed, we have not forgotten you, help is coming.

But the policy and delivery is complex and we cannot and should not rush to announce a scheme that begs more questions than it answers.

Sir Ed said:

It is not uncommon for the self-employed, when they do their annual self-assessment tax return, to have to pay money back to the Treasury - surely if money is given now so they can deal with the cash flow, capped, in a temporary scheme, then that money can be clawed back the next time they do their self-assessment if it turns out that they didn’t need it.

Mr Barclay replied:

He’s absolutely right, urgency is important, that is why the Chancellor is engaged on this, but it is a complex population that we are seeking to target.

Rishi Sunak.
Rishi Sunak. Photograph: House of Commons/PA


Transport for London temporarily suspends construction work on TfL and Crossrail sites

Work on Crossrail sites is being temporarily suspended to limit the spread of coronavirus, Transport for London (TfL) has said.

In a statement on Tuesday, it said that all work on TfL and Crossrail sites would be stopped unless they “need to continue for operational safety reasons”. It added:

The government and the mayor have given clear instructions to stay safe and to stop travelling in all cases other than critical workers making absolutely essential journeys.

In line with this, TfL and Crossrail will be bringing all project sites to a temporary safe stop unless they need to continue for operational safety reasons.

This means that work on all such projects will be temporarily suspended as soon as it is safe to do so. Essential maintenance of the transport network will, of course, continue.


Tokyo Olympics to be postponed to 2021

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, will propose a one-year postponement for the Tokyo Olympics during talks with the IOC president, Thomas Bach.

Abe said a postponement was unavoidable if the 2020 Games could not be held in a complete manner amid the coronavirus pandemic. Abe held telephone talks with Bach after the IOC said it would make a decision on the Tokyo Games over the next four weeks.

Until a few days ago, the IOC, along with the Tokyo organising committee and the Japanese government, had insisted there were no plans to delay the Olympics given they were not due to open for another four months but Japan’s NHK public television reported on Tuesday that Abe wants a one-year delay.

Tokyo 2020’s fate was effectively sealed this week when Canada and Australia said they would not send athletes to Japan in July, while the British and French governments urged the IOC to make a quick decision.

Read the full story here:


The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said he would join Pope Francis and “millions around the world” for a united recital of the Lord’s Prayer at noon on Wednesday.

“Please join us wherever you are. Prayer unites us in testing times,” he wrote on Twitter.

I’ll be praying the Lord’s Prayer with Pope Francis and millions around the world tomorrow. Please join us wherever you are. Prayer unites us in testing times. #PrayTogether

— Archbishop of Canterbury (@JustinWelby) March 24, 2020

Comprehensive spending review postponed because of coronavirus, Sunak confirms

And here is the Downing Street readout from cabinet. A Downing Street spokesperson said:

Cabinet received an update from Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer [for England], on the coronavirus outbreak.

Cabinet discussed the extensive range of actions which the government is taking to tackle the spread of the virus.

The prime minister said it was vital that the public followed the instructions issued by the government on the need to stay at home.

The PM said that by staying at home, people would protect our NHS and save lives.

The chancellor confirmed to cabinet that the comprehensive spending review will be delayed so that government remains focused on responding to the public health and economic emergency.

Further details of when the comprehensive spending review will be held will be set out in due course.

Originally the comprehensive spending review was due to conclude in July, with the deadline for submissions set for 20 May.


Two supermarket vans were destroyed in “sickening” arson attacks in Bristol and police riot vans were called out soon after Boris Johnson announced the new restrictions.

The delivery vans were destroyed in the attack outside an Iceland store in Arnside Road, Southmead, on Monday night.

Richard Walker, managing director of the retailer, said:

At a time when home delivery is literally a lifeline for some vulnerable people, this is sickening.

In a statement, Iceland said police riot vans were called out and youths threw missiles at the police as they tried to disperse them. Later in the evening, the two home delivery vans were set alight and the fire brigade attended to put out the fire.

The vans will both have to be written off. We believe this to be an act of mindless vandalism rather than a targeted attack on Iceland.

Our entire van fleet is running at absolutely full capacity at the moment, and it is shocking and distressing that anyone would act so callously to put vehicles out of service at precisely the time when they are most needed to deliver food to the most vulnerable people in our society.

Avon and Somerset police were also investigating other incidents that took place in Southmead and Henbury including criminal damage and a car being set on fire.

Chief Inspector Mark Runacres said:

Just hours after the prime minister announced that everyone in the country should stay home to save lives, it is beyond belief that anyone would be so reckless and thoughtless.

Officers were already patrolling the area following recent instances of antisocial behaviour and we’ll continue to do so. We put an order in place last night to give officers extra powers to disperse groups and will continue to use our existing powers to tackle this problem.

We believe that a group of teenagers were involved in these disturbances. I have one message for them, their parents and carers. Stay at home. Save lives.


Johnson chairs cabinet with just one other minister present as it meets by video conferencing for first time

According to Downing Street, only four people attended today’s cabinet meeting in person - and two of those were officials. The only ministers there were Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock, the health secretary.

The two officials present were Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, and Prof Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical adviser.

All other ministers participated via secure video conferencing.

This is the first time this has happened, No 10 says.


Funerals are one of the very few public gatherings still possible during the UK lockdown but many local authorities are taking steps to limit the number of mourners.

In Greater Manchester, Salford has become the first council to announce it will only be allowing 10 people per funeral at council-run crematoria until further notice.

Councillor David Lancaster, lead member for environment and community safety, said:

This has not been an easy decision, but we feel this is a necessary change to minimise the risk to residents and staff. We understand this affects people at what is already an emotional and difficult time and we are doing everything we can to support bereaved families. We have a strong working relationship with funeral directors, ministers and clergy and will ensure these changes are dealt with in the most respectful way.

Our employees are here to support residents and their families at this difficult time and we need co-operation and understanding. We want to assure residents that we are doing as much as possible based on government guidelines to provide the best service possible under very difficult circumstances.


Number of deaths in Wales rises to 17 with confirmed cases up to 478

Dr Giri Shankar, incident director for the outbreak response at Public Health Wales, said 60 more people had tested positive bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 478. There has been one further death, bringing the total to 17.

Dr Shankar said:

The public play a very important role in slowing the spread of infection. By strictly following the latest measures, you will protect yourself, protect the most vulnerable and help to reduce the pressure on NHS Wales and minimise the impact of the virus.


Sunak under pressure not to delay help for self-employed

In the Commons opposition MPs have been generally praised Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, for the measures announced last week to protect workers from the risk of losing their jobs, but they are insistent that he must do more to help the self-employed.

This is what John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said.

There is a sense of urgency about this now. There isn’t any member of this house who has not been contacted by a constituent who is in a quite distressful state at the moment.

This is what the Labour MP Wes Streeting said to Sunak.

The challenge ... is those workers who do not benefit [from the scheme announced last week], the 5 million self-employed. The degree of anxiety is increased because they have seen the ship sailing carrying others but not them ... Many of them are facing a cash-flow crisis right now.

And this is from the Labour MP Yvette Cooper.

Help for self employed is now extremely urgent. Need action from Ministers today. I’ve been contacted by childminders, taxi drivers, contractors, instructors, beauticians, window cleaners, musicians & more. Unable to work, facing hardship. Deeply unfair to leave them unsupported

— Yvette Cooper (@YvetteCooperMP) March 24, 2020


Agencies recruiting British fruit and vegetable pickers to replace seasonal workers from abroad have been overwhelmed by thousands of applications.

Normally, 99.9% of the 80,000 workers come from abroad, mostly from eastern Europe. But travel restrictions and anxieties about the coronavirus pandemic have led many workers to cancel.

Just a few dozen British pickers have been employed in the past but the Hops, Concordia and Fruitful Jobs agencies have had 8,000 applications in the last week. “The whole industry needs even more though so we will keep the form open,” said a Hops spokeswoman.

Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, said:

This is a huge, huge issue. We are six weeks off the strawberry and berry season. The UK is self-sufficient in these and many other things all the way through to November and we are still very reliant on the dexterity of the human hand. We need to empower a British work force.

“There are jobs available,” she told the BBC’s Today programme.

We are looking at a campaign to really empower a UK workforce to come out and deliver in the national interest to get our healthy fruit and vegetables on our shelves.

Hops operations director Sarah Boparan said:

We are aware that there are many people facing sustained periods away from their usual employment or studies and Hops can offer paid positions.

Workers are paid at least the minimum wage and Hops said all the farms they work with are following the correct procedures around safe working conditions during the coronavirus outbreak.

Recruitment of seasonal workers had already been impacted by Brexit, with farmers forced to leave tonnes of crops to rot last year as it struggled to find staff.


The Government Equalities Office (GEO) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have taken the decision to suspend enforcement of the gender pay gap reporting deadlines for this year.

In a joint statement, the minister for women & equalities, Liz Truss, and the EHRC chair, David Isaac, said:

We recognise that employers across the country are facing unprecedented uncertainty and pressure at this time. Because of this we feel it is only right to suspend enforcement of gender pay gap reporting this year.

The Government Equalities Office (GEO) and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have suspended enforcement of the #genderpaygap reporting deadlines for this year. Which is a relief personally as have no idea how @caelainnbarr and I would find time to report it.

— Alexandra Topping (@LexyTopping) March 24, 2020


Sunak 'determined' to help self-employed amid calls for urgent measures

In the Commons Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, also told MPs that he was “determined” to find a means of helping self-employed people who were losing work because of the coronavirus crisis. But he said it was “incredibly complicated” finding a way of designing a scheme that would help those in need, while not giving money to people who did not need it.

He says the Treasury had prioritised helping the 90% of workers who are employed.


Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is taking questions in the Commons. In response to a question from Labour’s John McDonnell, Sunak has just said that people on zero-hours contracts are eligible for help under the job retention scheme announced by Sunak on Friday last week.

  • Workers on zero-hours contracts are eligible for help under the job retention scheme, Sunak says.

But Sunak also confirmed that people who were having their hours reduced would not get help. He said that was not possible under the “furlough” scheme he announced last week.


Here is a lovely video of NHS workers in Belfast being applauded and handed bouquets of flowers by Tesco staff as they arrived to do their shopping.

Tesco workers in Belfast applauded NHS workers for their efforts during the #COVID19 outbreak and gave them flowers as they entered to do their shopping.

Get the latest on #coronavirus:

— Sky News (@SkyNews) March 24, 2020

There are two urgent questions in the Commons today.

There will be 2 UQs granted today at 1230.

1. @EdwardJDavey to ask @RishiSunak on financial support for the self-employed in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

2. @carolinenokes to ask @DominicRaab on what measures he plans to introduce to assist British citizens to return home

— Labour Whips (@labourwhips) March 24, 2020

King’s College London has launched a new app that will allow people to record if they are suffering from coronavirus symptoms. It says it will help them track the progression of the disease. There are more details here.

King's has launched a new app, allowing anyone to report symptoms of COVID-19, tracking the progression of the disease in real time.@TwinsUKres @Kings_SPHES @KCLImmunoMicro @timspector @kingsmedicine #unisupport #KingsTogether

— King's College London (@KingsCollegeLon) March 24, 2020


If you are looking for people who are well-placed to share hints and tips on how to survive months in isolation with scarce options for outdoor exercise, you could do worse than the astronaut corps.

On Thursday, Britain’s Tim Peake, Italy’s Samantha Cristoforetti, Germany’s Thomas Reiter and a handful of other European Space Agency astronauts will join an online event to talk to children and families about their experiences in confined spaces, their coping strategies and their sources of inspiration.

Physicist Brian Cox is among the guest presenters with special guests including Mayim Bialik from the Big Bang Theory and - you better shape up - Olivia Newton-John. The event’s free and you can ask questions on Twitter from today via the hashtag #SpaceConnectsUs. The broadcast will go out Thursday on ESA YouTube and ESA web TV at 3pm in Dutch, 4pm in German, 5pm in Italian, 6pm in French, and 7pm in English. All times are GMT.

In his London Playbook briefing Politico Europe’s Jack Blanchard has a telling anecdote about government policy on coronavirus testing. Blanchard writes:

As fast as possible?’ Playbook has just been passed an email sent by a senior Downing Street aide on Sunday afternoon to UK research institutes asking to borrow more of the expensive pieces of kit required to carry out Covid-19 tests. “We urgently need to scale up testing,” states the email from No 10, which was sent to a number of institutions around the UK. “There is only a limited supply of these machines, so the PM is making an urgent appeal for you to lend us your machine(s) for the duration of the crisis. We will meet all expenses and assume all liabilities and requirements associated with the use of these machines for this purpose. We undertake to return or replace the equipment when the emergency is over. We would very much like to collect any machines you have tomorrow (Mon 23) or Tuesday.”

And there’s more: An attached letter from Boris Johnson says plainly that “there are no machines available to buy,” and that the “urgent appeal” is therefore “in the national interest.” He adds that “if you have any staff who are experienced in using the machines … that would also be very helpful.”

Time is of the essence: To repeat, this call went out from No. 10 on Sunday afternoon. “It’s great that they are ramping up testing,” Playbook’s source within the research sector emails to say. “But it should have been done weeks ago. This is costing lives every day.” You won’t need reminding that the government was warned many weeks ago that if the virus escaped out of China, a global pandemic could be on the cards.


Housebuilder Taylor Wimpey said it has closed its construction sites, show homes and sale sites due to coronavirus.

Earlier today, competitor Redrow said its sites would remain open with “strict precautions in place including enhanced levels of cleaning, additional hygiene facilities and social distancing”.

There has been some confusion in the sector following the prime minister’s broadcast last night, due to a lack of clarification as to whether construction workers are considered “essential” workers and whether or not they should keep going to work on building sites amid the lockdown.

Speaking on Good Morning Britain earlier today, the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said that major construction work should go ahead, but that work carried out at close quarters in someone’s home should would not be appropriate.


A man moves a bin across an empty Trafalgar Square in London this morning.
A man moves a bin across an empty Trafalgar Square in London this morning. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Fewer school staff may be “willing or able” to work following the new restriction announced by the government last night, according to the National Association of Head Teachers.

An NAHT survey found that yesterday 94% of schools were providing emergency cover for pupils, and 84% of them have less than a fifth (20%) of their usual children attending.

But the NAHT general secretary said that in the light of what was said last night teachers may be even more concerned about the threat to their health from going into work. He explained:

We know that the vast majority of schools opened yesterday offering reduced provision. Our survey showed that most schools operated with fewer than one in four teaching and support staff present.

Having heard the prime minister speak, many colleagues will be rightly concerned for loved ones and understandably anxious about the personal risk of simply going to work. It would not be surprising to find, in the absence of clear government advice on keeping safe, that fewer colleagues are willing or able to work today than yesterday.

London’s borough of culture programmes are being pushed back in response to the impact of coronavirus.

The borough of culture concept was based on the success of the UK’s European capitals of culture – Glasgow and Liverpool – and the UK cities of culture – Derry, Hull and, in 2021, Coventry.

Waltham Forest was the first borough of culture last year with Brent taking on the title in January. Highlights are due to include a reimagining of Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale by Brent-born Zadie Smith.

Today we are announcing some changes to the timetable for Brent2020's programme in the light of the current COVID-19 outbreak.

— Brent 2020, London Borough of Culture (@LBOC2020) March 24, 2020

Justine Simons, London’s deputy mayor for culture and creative industries, said that Brent 2020 was now rescheduling until later in 2020. A summer party on Kilburn High Street and Liberty Festival, a free festival celebrating of the work of deaf and disabled artists, will take place in the summer of 2021.

Lewisham’s year of culture will move to 2022. Croydon’s 2023 date remains unaffected.

Simons said:

It’s important that we all follow the government’s instructions to stay at home unless it is essential to leave.

But we do not want Londoners to miss out on the amazing creative programmes that Brent, Lewisham and Croydon have planned, so that is why we have re-scheduled our plans.

We will work closely with artists, the boroughs and all those involved to ensure they are supported during these challenging times.

UK heads for deep recession as economy shrinks in March

The UK economy is contracting at its fastest rate in at least two decades, as the service sector is hit extremely hard by the Covid-19 outbreak.

Data firm Markit reports that business activity across services and manufacturing has slumped this month, as the coronavirus deals the UK economy “a more severe blow than at any time since comparable figures were first available over 20 years ago”.

Output has slumped, new orders have contracted at their fastest pace since 2008, and business expectations have absolutely cratered.

This has dragged Markit’s survey of UK purchasing managers down to just 37.1 in March, down from 53.0 in February. That shows an extremely sharp fall in activity.

It’s the worst reading since the survey began in 1998, and means the economy is contracting much faster than after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.

Such a low number suggests a deep recession is inevitable this year (understandably, with so many businesses now closed due to coronavirus measures).

The services sector PMI (which covered much of the UK economy) slumped to just 35.7, from 53.2 in February.

The manufacturing PMI fell to 48.0 from 51.7 (but the true picture is worse, as the PMI calculation assumes that long delays for supplies are a sign of a strong economy).

Flash UK PMI drops to record low of 37.1 in March, as the COVID-19 pandemic dealt a more severe blow to the UK economy than during the financial crisis, even before more stringent measures for shops, pubs and restaurants announced last Friday. More here:

— IHS Markit PMI™ (@IHSMarkitPMI) March 24, 2020

Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit, says a recession “not seen in modern history” is now likely:

The surveys highlight how the Covid-19 outbreak has already dealt the UK economy an initial blow even greater than that seen at the height of the global financial crisis.

With additional measures to contain the spread of the virus set to further paralyse large parts of the economy in coming months, such as business closures and potential lockdowns, a recession of a scale we have not seen in modern history is looking increasingly likely.

Historical comparisons indicate that the March survey reading is consistent with GDP falling at a quarterly rate of 1.5-2.0%, a decline which is sufficiently large to push the economy into a contraction in the first quarter. However, this decline will likely be the tip of the iceberg and dwarfed by what we will see in the second quarter as further virus containment measures take their toll and the downturn escalates.

Any growth was confined to small pockets of the economy such as food manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and healthcare. Demand elsewhere has collapsed, both for goods and services, as increasing numbers of households and businesses at home and abroad close their doors.

You can continue to follow all the latest economic news and analysis over on our business live blog.


Matt Hancock, the health secretary, is making an oral statement in the Commons on coronavirus at 12.30pm.

One statement at 1230: update on coronavirus (COVID-19) - @MattHancock / @JonAshworth

— Labour Whips (@labourwhips) March 24, 2020

Here is some video footage from the London underground this morning, where some carriages have been crammed despite the new social distancing rules.

Police forces around the country are receiving large numbers of calls from people seeking clarification about what is and is not allowed under the new rules, the Press Association reports. On BBC Breakfast Sir Peter Fahy, the former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, said “there is a huge amount of clarification needed”.

Fahy also said the police would rely on public cooperation for the new rules to work. He explained:

There is no way, really, that the police can enforce this using powers; it has got to be because the public hugely support it, that there is peer pressure and there is continuing clarification from government about the message and going through all the individual scenarios and questions that people will have about what happens in this situation.

It feels like, in the next few days, we will need an implementation period, but the key thing is that the public accept that this is absolutely vital if lives are to be saved.

John Apter, national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, has said that it is “not realistic” to expect the police to enforce some aspects of the rules, such as whether people are taking outdoor exercise just once a day.

There has been some debate over whether the government was right to include bike shops in the list of stores allowed to remain open to provide an “essential” service. Cycling UK, a membership and lobbying organisation, applauded the decision but urged cyclists not to abuse the move.

Cycling UK urges people to distinguish between essential and non-essential shopping trips. This is not the moment to go out and browse for a nice new bike,” said Roger Geffen, policy director.

However, it’s another matter if you’re getting that neglected bike out of the shed so you can make essential journeys without relying on public transport or a lift in someone else’s car and you therefore need to get a replacement tyre or inner tube, or to get the bike repaired by a professional mechanic.

It is for this reason we think the government is to be applauded for keeping bike shops open.

Cycling is a great way not only to make that one bout of exercise each day, but also to make those essential journeys. Just remember when visiting the bicycle shop to follow public health social distancing and hygiene advice.

Cycling is a great way to look after your physical and mental health during these stressful times. 🚴‍♀️😃

⚠️ Just remember: stay at least two metres away from other people and no group rides.

Read our updated Q&A for more info:

— Cycling UK (@WeAreCyclingUK) March 24, 2020


Tavistock Relationships, the London-based charity providing couple therapy and parenting support, is continuing to offer therapeutic help by switching from face-to-face therapy to online webcam sessions.

In response to the Corona Virus we are moving all our counselling sessions online. So if you’re at home and want to talk about a relationship, parenting or sexual matter you can. Read our blog to find out how online therapy works

— Tavistock Relationships (@TaviRelations) March 23, 2020

Andrew Balfour, chief executive, said:

Relationships are hard to do at the best of times, but right now, as the coronavirus is leading to massive changes in the way we live our lives, healthy relationships are going to be hugely important for getting us through self-isolation, social distancing and the income security pressures that so many of us will be facing.

So that we can continue to offer support to couples and families, until the current emergency is over, all our therapy sessions will be online.

Research shows us that conflict between parents can have a very negative effect on children’s development in terms of mental and physical health. With families forced to isolate and children no longer able to go to school, problems are potentially going to quickly escalate with no immediate prospect of relief. We urge people to seek expert help before they reach breaking point.

UK coronavirus lockdown rules: what you can and cannot do

For the many people still confused about what is and is not allowed under the government’s new lockdown rules, our colleague Lisa O’Carroll has produced a guide. It’s here.

The Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Alva), which bangs the drum for the UK’s museums, galleries, palaces, castles, zoos and leisure attractions, has just cancelled publication of its latest figures showing “a bumper year” for visitor numbers in 2019, which was planned for Thursday.

Alva director Bernard Donoghue said such a move would be “inappropriate” given restrictions in place in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

In the light of the prime minister’s statement last night and the severe restrictions on leaving home, we feel that to issue the results of last year’s bumper year for visitor attractions would be inappropriate when all of our members are closed and are facing challenging times. We will issue the data later in the spring.

All of our attractions have fantastic websites and we encourage members of the public to visit them, see the diversity and breadth of their collections, people, places and stories, and use this time at home to create their own ‘UK tourism bucket list of places they will visit when attractions re-open.

The 70 Alva members manage some nearly 2,200 tourist sites and welcome over 119 million domestic and overseas visitors each year; some 28% of the visits made annually in the UK.


The TSSA rail union is calling for police to be deployed at major train stations and tube stations in London to ensure only passengers who are “providing vital services” are travelling. Manuel Cortes, the TSSA general secretary, said:

Sadly, the situation on the London Underground has not improved.

We urgently need British Transport Police and other officers at major stations across London’s transport network to ensure only those with a valid reason to travel are doing so in this emergency.


Prisons in England and Wales have been put on immediate lockdown with all visits cancelled, according to the union which represents prison officers.

The Prison Officers’ Association said it “praised the decision of the secretary of state for justice and the director of public sector prisons for their decision to place prisons in England and Wales on immediate lockdown”.

According to the union, restrictions inside jails will mean:

  • Inmates generally being locked up but allowed to access showers, phones and exercise – with social distancing restrictions in place.
  • Prisoners who carry out kitchen, cleaning and laundry work can continue.
  • No social visits

At the time of writing, five prisoners in the UK have tested positive for Covid-19.

Today our prisons go into lock down. No visits, no education, no workshops, no association. The @POAUnion have been listened to and the frontline protected as much as they can be. It is the right decision. Staff, prisoners and all their families must be kept as safe as possible

— National Chair POA (@POAnatchair) March 24, 2020


The chemicals firm Ineos, owned by Britiain’s richest man, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, has just announced it will build a factory near Middlesbrough in 10 days to produce 1m bottles of hand sanitiser a month. It said products will be given to hospitals free of charge.

In a statement on its website, the company said it will supply hospitals, schools, places of work, pharmacies and supermarkets.

Ineos said it intends to produce both standard and the pocket bottle hand sanitisers, and is already talking to retail outlets across Europe.

The company already manufactures a range of healthcare products, including rubber gloves, PVC saline drips, syringes, ventilators and medical tubing.

Ratcliffe, founder and chairman, said:

Ineos is a company with enormous resources and manufacturing skills. If we can find other ways to help in the coronavirus battle, we are absolutely committed to playing our part.

INEOS gets hands on.

Within 10 days, INEOS will construct two purpose-built plants in UK & Germany to produce 1 MILLION bottles of hand sanitiser per month.

Sanitiser will be free for hospitals to help prevent the spread of #COVID19 from hand to mouth:

— INEOS (@INEOS) March 24, 2020


A sign on the M8 motorway near Glasgow this morning advising motorists to avoid travel where possible.
A sign on the M8 motorway near Glasgow this morning advising motorists to avoid travel where possible. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

A photo of a four-year-old girl with cancer kissing her dad through a window has been shared by her family to illustrate the importance of self-isolation and physical distancing.

Mila Sneddon, who lives in Falkirk, has been undergoing chemotherapy since she was diagnosed in November. Her parents took the decision to keep her safe by having the family live apart.

Her mother, Lynda, posted the photo on Facebook, where it has been shared more than 37,000 times.

The Times (paywall) has the full story.

“It is difficult for us all but the longer people go out, the longer we will have to stay indoors and Mila is missing her daddy and sister.”

— The Times (@thetimes) March 24, 2020

WHSmith has said it is closing 60% of its more than 1,200 stores across the UK in response to the Covid-19 lockdown.

The newsagent chain had faced criticism from some of its staff who said they had been provided with little or no protective equipment.

Its chief executive, Carl Cowling, told staff in an internal email last Wednesday that it would be “positioning ourselves to government as an ‘essential retailer’”, akin to pharmacies or supermarkets, as it vowed to stay open during a lockdown.

But on Tuesday the 227-year-old firm said it was closing 60% of its stores and that only those providing post office services, or in NHS hospitals, key small towns and transport hubs would remain open.

A WHSmith spokeswoman said:

Our key priority is their health and wellbeing and we have a number of strict measures in place to keep everyone safe and supported.

Given the fast evolving situation, our stores will be under constant review and we will support our colleagues through this difficult time.


Britain’s youngest MP, Nadia Whittome, has returned to her previous job at a care agency in Nottingham to help with the coronavirus crisis.

The government is not going far or fast enough to stop the spread, and #CoronavirusBillUK risks worsening the social care crisis.

Tomorrow I return part-time to my previous job as a care worker because our care system is in danger of falling apart at the seams during #COVID19.

— Nadia Whittome MP (@NadiaWhittomeMP) March 23, 2020

The Nottingham East MP said she would donate the salary receives from her part-time role at ExtraCare to a local Covid-19 support fund.

The 23-year-old said:

I am returning part-time to my previous job as a care worker because social care is already in crisis and the care system is in serious danger of falling apart at the seams during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Care workers work tirelessly to support communities, yet rarely receive recognition and pay that reflects their contribution.


The prime minister’s address to the nation was seen by 21.1 million people last night on BBC1 and ITV, with another 1.7m watching on Channel 4. Add in all the other channels showing the broadcast, plus the (not counted) views via online streams and catch-up TV, and it is one of the most watched broadcasts in British TV history, says our media editor, Jim Waterson.

Add in all the other channels showing the prime ministerial broadcast, plus the (not counted) people watching online streams, plus the people watching on catch-up, and you're looking at one of the most watched broadcasts in British TV history.

— Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) March 24, 2020


Gove does not rule out lockdown rules getting even tighter after three weeks

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, has been giving a series of interviews this morning. Here are the key points.

  • Gove only partially rejected claims that the government had acted too late, saying that this would be for others to judge in the future. In the Commons yesterday Jeremy Hunt, the former foreign secretary, former health secretary and former Tory leadership candidate, said that “it may be too late” to avoid the UK following Italy. Hunt said:

One London hospital has seven doctors with the virus in just that one hospital. Yet still people are going to shops, parks, beaches and holiday homes as if nothing has changed. It may be too late to avoid following Italy, but to have any chance at all of doing so we must move now to lockdown rules that ban non-essential travel. It is time not just to ask people to do social distancing, but to enforce those social distancing rules—not next week, not this week, but right away.

On Sky News Kay Burley asked Gove about Hunt’s comment and how he thought history would look back at the way the UK has handled this, Gove replied:

I think the most important thing now is not to look back, but to do everything that we can in order to ensure that the instructions that are being put in place are being followed. People will form their own judgment at some point in the future. What I’m concerned about now is making sure that we do everything possible to protect the NHS, and that means that wherever possible people should stay at home.

Asked again if the government had acted too late, Gove said:

We’ve followed advice at every stage on what is the appropriate measure to take, and I think that’s the right thing to do. In a democracy it is perfectly understandable that people have a range of views and disagree. Judgments can be formed now. Judgments will be formed in due course. I think the most important thing now, though, is to do everything that we can now, as individuals in our communities and in government, to follow the steps that will limit the spread of this disease.

  • Gove initially sidestepped a question about whether the government was still expecting hundreds of thousands of deaths before the coronavirus outbreak was contained. When pressed on this, he said it would depend on what people did.
  • He suggested the rules announced last night could be made even stricter. He told Burley:

We will review in three weeks’ time exactly who how these measures are working. Let me be clear: this is a public health emergency, a national emergency. We must do everything that we can to stop this virus spreading. The prime minister said in his statement if the virus spreads in an unconstrained way, it will overwhelm the health services of any nation. So that is why we are taking the steps that we are taking ... We will keep it under review. And in three weeks’ time we will be able to say whether or not the path that we’ve followed needs any further intensification, or whether there are one or two of the existing restrictions that may be capable of being lifted.

"In three weeks time we'll be able to say whether or not the path we've followed needs intensification."

Cabinet boss @michaelgove says the government will assess whether they can lift lockdown restrictions at the end of three weeks. JM #KayBurley

— Kay Burley (@KayBurley) March 24, 2020
  • He had to clarify that it was acceptable for children whose parents are separated to move from one household to another. In an early interview on Good Morning Britain he said this should not happen. But later he said that was wrong.

I wasn’t clear enough earlier, apologies. To confirm - while children should not normally be moving between households, we recognise that this may be necessary when children who are under 18 move between separated parents. This is permissible & has been made clear in the guidance

— Michael Gove (@michaelgove) March 24, 2020

This is from Good Morning Britain’s Anne Alexander.

Re moving children between homes if you share parenting, here is the government guidance . Key bits underlined.
You are allowed to make those journeys as it's classed as providing care for a vulnerable person

— Anne Alexander (@Annemariealex) March 24, 2020
  • Gove said he could not see any justification for Sports Direct staying open. (Sports Direct got the message. See 9.37am.)
  • He said that major construction work should go ahead, but that work carried out at close quarters in someone’s home should would not be appropriate. As the Times’ Mark McLaughlin points out, in Scotland the advice is different.

Cross-border diversion (or confusion)@NicolaSturgeon says building sites must close @michaelgove says building sites ‘must change to observe social distancing’

Which is it?

Maybe @jasonleitch can help

— Mark McLaughlin (@mark_mclaughlin) March 24, 2020
  • Gove said it would be acceptable for a plumber to attend an emergency call-out. But the plumber should practice social distancing, he said.
  • He said that the government would be proposing new measures to help the self-employed make up for the income they will lose during this crisis.
  • He said buying items like toys and clothes online would continue.

Supermarkets introduce strict measures to police in-store physical distancing

All UK supermarkets are in discussions about further, tougher measures to police physical distancing in their shops, given that they are among the few to remain open to provide “essential” services.

Waitrose has announced a package of strict new measures to back the government’s plea for tighter physical distancing protocols, to help customers shop safely while ensuring its partners are protected.

These include:

  • Installing checkout screens - and special protective visors to be worn by staff.
  • Limiting customer numbers in store so that physical distancing can be properly observed.
  • Introducing new stickers at the floors of checkouts and customer welcome desks to manage distance between customers. These will read: ‘Leave space. Leave Safe. Help us to protect you.’
  • Introducing dedicated “marshals” per store to ensure the two metre rule is respected when queueing inside and outside.
  • Fewer checkouts in order to enable staff to maintain physical distancing; where two checkouts are back to back, one will close.

Bérangère Michel, partner & executive director, customer service, at the John Lewis Partnership, said:

While these measures will dramatically change how people shop and interact with others in our stores for the moment - they are absolutely vital to ensure that our customers can shop safely and that our Partners are protected as they go above and beyond to serve shoppers in this time of crisis.

Lidl is also rolling out thousands of protection screens at checkouts at its stores in order to protect its staff and customers.

Christian Härtnagel, chief executive of Lidl GB, commented:

We hope that this additional safeguard will help to provide extra reassurance for those both working and shopping in our stores.

We are eternally grateful to all of our store teams who are working hard every day to support their communities. And, we would once again like to thank customers for their consideration during this very challenging time.

Tesco is understood to have been looking at limiting the number of customers entering a store at any one time and the possibility of banning trolleys so that shoppers can only take away a basket of shopping at a time.


The Department for Work and Pensions has suspended all disability reviews and assessments for three months, and is to hire 1,500 new staff to deal with a surge of new claims for benefits.

Last week the DWP suspended all face to face assessments for personal independence payment and employment and support allowance, and suspended all face to face job centre interviews, but has been forced to go further as the coronavirus crisis deepens.

Last night it also unveiled plans to hire new staff and redeploy around 10,000 existing workers to roles processing new claims as tens of thousands of newly-unemployed workers apply for universal credit.

Job centres will remain staffed but will not admit claimants except by booked appointment. Only the most vulnerable claimants who are unable to access claims by other means will be able to attend.

The new arrangements came into place this morning.

The DWP has called on people to make claims online if they can, rather than using the phone, so as to free up staff to deal with people who do not have internet access or cannot use online services.

#Coronavirus: We are urging people to use online services first, helping keep phone lines free for those who really need them.

You should make an application for#UniversalCredit online, and manage your account through your journal. Find out more here:

— DWP (@DWP) March 23, 2020

The secretary of state for work and pensions, Thérèse Coffey, said:

Our job centres are fully committed to supporting people facing challenges during these extraordinary times. To help people most effectively and efficiently, we need people to claim online. If you cannot get online, phone us for help and we will only see people face to face in our job centres if invited.

Disability benefits assessments, which inform whether a person is deemed to be ill enough to qualify for or continue receiving support have gained notoriety in recent years for their lack of accuracy, and are regarded with dread by many claimants.

An all-party MPs inquiry into Pip and ESA assessments in 2018 concluded that failings in assessment processes had contributed to a lack of trust in both benefits and risked undermining claimants’ confidence in their operation.


Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has said this morning that more lives will be lost if people in London continue to travel into work unnecessarily.

He was speaking as pictures appeared on social media that appear to show some tube carriages crammed with passengers this morning.

Khan said that employers should enable their staff to work from home “unless it’s absolutely necessary”, adding: “Ignoring these rules means more lives lost.”

Julia Harris, a nurse who commutes to work at Imperial College NHS trust, said she had left earlier and changed her route in a bid to avoid crowds but still found services busy. She told the PA news agency:

Seats on the train all had at least one person so people needed to stand, and the District line was busy as well. I still don’t think things have improved as a large amount of people are commuting early in the morning.

It is concerning because I have to come to work. The choice isn’t there and my commute is quite long. I worry for my health more on my commute than actually being in the hospital.

Commuters at Hammersmith underground station in London this morning.
Commuters at Hammersmith underground station in London this morning. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters


A snap YouGov poll suggests the public overwhelmingly supports the measures announced by Boris Johnson last night. These are from YouGov’s Chris Curtis.


The public overwhelming back the measures announced by the Prime Minister last night.

➡️Support: 93% (including 76% who strongly support)
➡️Oppose: 4%
➡️Don’t know: 3%

These are crazy high levels of support.

— Chris Curtis (@chriscurtis94) March 24, 2020

Perhaps optimistically, the public expect this to be a breeze.

➡️66% think following the new rules will be easy
➡️29% think it will be hard

— Chris Curtis (@chriscurtis94) March 24, 2020

But the public are divided on whether these new rules will be enforceable.

➡️39% think these new police powers are sufficient
➡️39% think they are insufficient

— Chris Curtis (@chriscurtis94) March 24, 2020

Sports Direct abandons talk of opening stores as Gove clarifies scope of lockdown rules

Good morning. Britons have woken up this morning in what will in many respects feel like a new country, following the imposition of restrictions on travel and trade unprecedented in peacetime. Here is our overnight story about Boris Johnson’s announcement last night.

Here is the two-page document (pdf) issued by the government last night explaining the new rules, “Full guidance on staying at home and away from others”. And here is the six-page document (pdf) from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government saying which businesses should close.

Today ministers will be spending some of their time clarifying these rules, and we’ve already seen one unsuccessful challenge. Last night the sports chain Sports Direct argued that its stores should be allowed to stay open because exercise is vital, and it released this open letter to the PM.

Hi @BorisJohnson @10DowningStreet should we open our stores in the morning?

— Sports Direct (@SportsDirectUK) March 24, 2020

This morning the firm got an answer from Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, who said Sports Direct shops should stay closed

‘I can’t see any justification for Sports Direct remaining open.’

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove says Mike Ashley should ‘rescind’ what he said and should make sure the employees stay at home.

— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) March 24, 2020

Now the firm is complying. This is from Sky’s Tamara Cohen.

Sports Direct managers told by their CFO that they will not open until they’ve got the go-ahead from government. @michaelgove clear this morning he doesn’t think they should be open.

— Tamara Cohen (@tamcohen) March 24, 2020

Gove has been giving a series of interviews this morning. I will post the highlights soon.

Here is the agenda for the day.

9.30am: Boris Johnson chairs cabinet, with many ministers participating via conference call.

11.30am: Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, takes questions in the Commons.

12pm: Downing Street lobby briefing.

1.30pm: The Trussell Trust, the British Retail Consortium and UK Hospitality give evidence to the Commons environment committee; and at 2.30pm George Eustice, the environment secretary, gives evidence about coronavirus and food supply.

2.30pm: Public Health England, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine give evidence to the Commons health committee; and at 3.30pm the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the Local Government Association, the Care and Support Alliance and Care England give evidence.

Afternoon: The government is expected to hold its regular coronavirus press conference.

We will be covering all UK coronavirus developments throughout the day. You can read all the latest Guardian coronavirus articles here, you can read all the latest Guardian politics articles here and here is the Politico Europe roundup of this morning’s political news.

If you want to follow me or contact me on Twitter, I’m on @AndrewSparrow Lucy is on @lucy_campbell_.

I try to monitor the comments below the line (BTL) but it is impossible to read them all. If you have a direct question, do include “Andrew” in it somewhere and I’m more likely to find it. I do try to answer questions, and if they are of general interest, I will post the question and reply above the line (ATL), although I can’t promise to do this for everyone.

If you want to attract my attention quickly, it is probably better to use Twitter.



Andrew Sparrow and Lucy Campbell

The GuardianTramp

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