Prime Minister Boris Johnson today said around six million people – a fifth of the working population – could be absent from work as a result of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
His estimate comes after Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that 51 new cases of coronavirus had been detected overnight.
About 90,000 people have been infected globally since the outbreak in China of coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, with cases in more than 50 countries and more than 3,000 deaths.
It is thought that the vast majority of individuals in the UK that contract it will have little more than a mild to moderate illness, similar to seasonal flu.
But a minority will require hospital care and a small proportion could die, the government battle plans warn.
The Prime Minister said that police could ignore low-level crime and troops could be deployed on the streets if the virus takes hold.
Patients not suffering from the disease could also be sent home from hospital.
The Prime Minister called for calm, though, and said that local authorities will be helped with the ‘challenge’ of dealing with increasing numbers of deaths among the elderly and vulnerable.
But the inevitable shock to the economy – both domestically and globally – is causing havoc in the markets.
Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, said that he would take steps to help the UK through a coronavirus economic shock “that could prove large”.
Carney told MPs that the Bank’s interest rate setting committee was “considering the policy implications of various possible scenarios”.
He said the persistence of the economic hit should be different to that of the “lasting scarring” caused by the financial crisis in 2008 – with the virus likely to cause “disruption not destruction”.
But ITV News correspondent Robert Peston said officials in Scotland and England have told him that they believe there could be a massive automatic rise in Universal Credit and other welfare payments if millions of people were unable to work because of the illness and significant numbers of businesses were forced to suspend trading.
Peston said the one year impact on the public finances could be as significant as in the year after the 2008 crash, because temporary rises in unemployment and under-employment could be sharper than 12 years ago, forcing up social security payments.
Tax revenues would fall very fast, too, Peston said.
Carney said that the Bank was currently in the process of changing its assessment for the UK economic outlook – having only recently cut its forecast for UK GDP growth in 2020 to 0.8%.