Cancelling sports events and shutting museums and galleries due to coronavirus would be “premature”, the culture secretary has said, as the prime minister gathered ministers for an emergency Cobra meeting to discuss the next steps to tackle the illness.
While some other European countries are cancelling mass gatherings or limiting the number of people who can attend big events, Oliver Dowden said there are “no plans” for Britain to follow suit.
Dowden insisted the government is following the advice of health officials and, while the situation is kept under review, there is currently “no need” to cancel big events or for people to avoid museums or other public places.
He told BBC Breakfast: “There’s no reason for people either not to attend such events or to cancel them at this stage, but we keep it under review.”
Asked about the possibility of galleries and museums closing, he said: “I think all of this is quite premature at this stage, we are not anywhere near that sort of stage.”
Last week, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty told MPs the UK was mainly moving towards the delay phase of its strategy to tackle coronavirus, the point at which such “social distancing” measures may be phased in.
Boris Johnson is holding an emergency Cobra meeting on whether the UK should officially move to the delay phase – which is the second phase of the government’s four-part plan.
At the weekend, Italy imposed restrictions on around 16 million people for nearly a month in a bid to stop the spread of the disease there.
Italy now has the highest number of confirmed cases outside China at 7,375, and its death toll stands at 366.
France, where more than 1,100 cases have been recorded and 19 people have died, has announced a ban on events of more than 1,000 people.
The UK has 280 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and three people have died in UK hospitals.
Meanwhile, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has said it is contact with around 142 British nationals on board the Grand Princess cruise ship, which is due to start disembarkation of US guests at the Port of Oakland on Monday.
The FCO said on Sunday evening it was “working intensively” with US authorities to arrange a flight for UK citizens, who are then likely to be taken into quarantine.
A statement from Princess Cruises said disembarkation “is expected to be a multiple day process”, adding: “The US Coast Guard will be sending California Health & Human Services teams to assist with medical triage, screening and interviews, and prioritising those who require the most acute care.
“To avoid delays, testing will be conducted when guests arrive at their onward destination.”
Meanwhile, in Italy, Britons are still able to leave lockdown areas in the North, although anyone wishing to travel there from the UK is advised not to do so unless it is urgent.
The FCO said: “British nationals remain able to depart Italy without restriction.
“Residents of other parts of Italy are permitted to leave the isolation areas to return home.
“Otherwise entry into and exit from these areas is forbidden without official permission on the grounds of strict necessity; the authorities have confirmed to us that this will be granted for reasons such as medical need or work requirements.”
Across the whole of Italy, museums and cultural institutions are closed and all sporting fixtures must be played behind closed doors.
Childcare facilities, schools and universities are closed until 15 March, while public and social gatherings should be avoided with cinemas, pubs and clubs closed. Restaurants and bars remain open with reduced seating.
A limited number of UK commercial flights, including from EasyJet, are still flying to and from Northern Italy.
A British Airways spokesperson said: “Following the change to the UK government travel advice for northern Italy, we are reviewing our schedule and have contacted all customers who are due to travel today.
“We are also offering customers booked to fly before April 2 the option to change their booking to another date up to the end of May, or to fly via Zurich or Geneva instead.
“Passengers due to travel to northern Italy today have been given the option of a full refund.”
Travellers returning from the lockdown areas in northern Italy are advised to self-isolate if they have returned to the UK in the last 14 days, even if have they have no coronavirus symptoms.
In other developments:
– Dr David Nabarro, one of the World Health Organisation’s six special envoys on coronavirus, said the government is likely to be considering restrictions on religious and community gatherings to help delay the spread of the disease.
– University Hospital Southampton closed its surgical high dependency unit to new admissions after a staff member tested positive for coronavirus.
– The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is hosting a meeting with governing bodies and broadcasters on Monday to discuss how to handle the Covid-19 outbreak’s potential impact on the sporting calendar.
– Oliver Dowden said expert teams had been brought together to tackle the potential spread of “misinformation and digital interference” around coronavirus.
– Environment secretary George Eustice will hold further talks with retailers on how to support vulnerable groups who may have to self-isolate, amid widespread stockpiling.
– Speaker Lindsay Hoyle will also chair a meeting of the House of Commons Commission to discuss Parliament’s response.
Johnson will tell the Cobra committee on Monday that tackling the outbreak will require a “national and international effort”.
He is expected to say: “I am confident the British people are ready to play their part in that.”
Prof Whitty and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance are due to attend the meeting.
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