Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told Sky News that over-70s will be asked to self-isolate “in the coming weeks” – and it could potentially last for months.
He told the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme that the growing coronavirus outbreak meant “the elderly and vulnerable” would be asked to “shield themselves by self isolating”.
When pushed on whether they could be asked to isolate for months, he said: “That is in the action plan, yes.
“And we will be setting it out in more detail when that’s the right time to do so, because we appreciate it is a very big ask of the elderly and vulnerable, and it’s for their own self protection.”
Mr Hancock said the government did not want to act too soon.
“It’s not an easy thing for people to do, it’s not an easy thing for people to sustain. But the critical thing is we need to be ready,” said the health secretary.
Older people with underlying heath conditions are particularly at risk if they catch the coronavirus.
Mr Hancock called the outbreak – which has killed 21 people and infected 1,140 in the UK – “one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced for a generation”.
“The measures we’re looking at taking are very, very significant and they will disrupt the ordinary lives of almost everybody in the country,” he added.
It comes as Boris Johnson is to ask firms to join a “national effort” and ramp up the production of ventilators amid concerns hospitals will come under intense pressure.
The UK currently has around 5,000 ventilators, said Mr Hancock, but is likely to need “many times more than that”.
“We’re saying (to manufacturers) if you produce a ventilator, we’ll buy it. No number is too high,” he said.
The health secretary said the government is also asking firms to switch production lines to make more ventilators and other critical care equipment.
Boris Johnson is holding a conference call with manufacturers today to ask them to step up.
The ventilators are needed to help people with severe symptoms to breathe properly when a sticky mucus fills their lungs
The NHS could also buy up thousands of beds in private hospitals to boost capacity if COVID-19 spreads rapidly.
A government bill on emergency powers to deal with the outbreak is to be set out on Tuesday and published on Thursday, said Mr Hancock.
He said it would include a broad range of measures and that the government was “absolutely ready” to ban gatherings of more than 500 people.
“We will take these decisions at the right time. I’m absolutely ready to take actions like that,” said Mr Hancock.
A government COBRA meeting will discuss the latest plans on Monday amid criticism from scientists that its plan is “risking lives” by not immediately bringing in social distancing measures.
In other developments: