Government ministers have issued an order to members of the public to stay at home on what is expected to be the hottest weekend of the year so far to help protect the NHS from an upsurge in coronavirus cases.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, warned that any relaxation of social distancing will cost lives, declaring that the regime imposed by Boris Johnson two weeks ago “is not a request, it is an instruction”.
“We cannot relax our discipline now,” warned the health secretary. “If we do, people will die.”
In an emotional moment at the daily No 10 press conference, chief nursing officer Ruth May called on the public to stay at home in honour of frontline nurses Areema Nasreen and Aimee O’Rourke, whose deaths from Covid-19 were announced on Friday.
“They were one of us,” said Ms May. “They were one of my profession, of the NHS family. I worry that there’s going to be more. And I want to honour them today and recognise their service.
“I’m grateful for all of our frontline staff, and all of our support staff who are caring for sick patients. And I’m very grateful to you, the British public, for your patience and in helping our NHS.
“This weekend is going to be very warm and it is very tempting to go out and enjoy those summer rays. But please, I ask you to remember Aimee and Areema. Please stay at home for them.”
In a sign of Downing Street’s nervousness that public commitment to social distancing may be waning after two weeks behind closed doors, Mr Johnson released a video plea to people who he acknowledged must now be becoming “stir crazy”.
Concern was raised by an uptick in car usage picked up a couple of days ago, as well as anecdotal evidence of people spending more time out of doors.
With temperatures expected to soar as high as 20C on what would normally have been the first weekend of the Easter holidays, the prime minister – himself self-isolating after going down with the virus – said he recognised that people will be tempted to head for the parks or beaches.
He said: “I reckon a lot of people will be starting to think that this is all going on for quite a long time and would rather be getting out there, particularly if you’ve got kids in the household.
“Everybody may be getting a bit stir crazy, and there may be just a temptation to get out there, hang out and start to break the regulations.
“I just urge you not to do that. Please, please, stick with the guidance now.
“This country has made a huge effort, a huge sacrifice, done absolutely brilliantly well in delaying the spread of the virus.
“Let’s stick with it now – remember that incredible clapping again last night for our fantastic NHS. We’re doing it to protect them and to save lives.”
His warning came as the latest official figures showed a continuing increase in day-on-day deaths to a record 684, bringing the total death toll of people with coronavirus symptoms in UK hospitals to 3,605.
Mr Hancock told the press conference: “The disease is still spreading. And we absolutely cannot afford to relax the social distancing measures that we have in place. We cannot relax our discipline now. If we do, people will die.
“So I end with the advice that we all know. This advice is not a request. It is an instruction. Stay at home, protect lives and then you will be doing your part.”
NHS medical director Stephen Powis has previously said that possible “green shoots” he has detected in infection rates were driven by strong public compliance with social distancing requirements, which makes it far more difficult for the virus to pass from one person to another.
On Friday, deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam stressed how important it was for controlling the spread of Covid-19 that people continue to observe the rule on remaining at home unless absolutely necessary and maintaining two metres distance from anyone outside your household.
“This remains a dangerous time, it remains vitally important that people continue to stay at home and practise the social distancing that we’ve asked of them, even this weekend as the weather turns warmer,” said Prof Van-Tam.
“I absolutely see green shoots, I really do, in terms of the massive change in public behaviour that’s already taken place,” he said. “If that continues for as long as the government asks for it to continue then they really will be quite big, green shoots in the end.“
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