Rishi Sunak unveils massive coronavirus package to stop UK going bust

Utility bills and council tax could be SCRAPPED with the government GUARANTEEING firms income as part of ‘wartime’ coronavirus bailout worth hundreds of billions of pounds as economy grinds to a halt

  • Chancellor Rishi Sunak is set to unveil package to ease impact of coronavirus
  • The Prime Minister has told Britons to avoid pubs and clubs amid the outbreak
  • But business owners fear that they may lose their livelihoods as firms go bust
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

Utility bills and council tax could be scrapped and the government could guarantee businesses will not lose out in a massive package to combat coronavirus chaos. 

Government economists laid out the extraordinary options as Chancellor Rishi Sunak prepares to unveil measures to stop the UK effectively going bust. 

The lockdown announced by Boris Johnson last night, has sparked panic among businesses, while the self-employed and those in the ‘gig’ economy could also struggle to work.  

Venue owners have vented fury at the PM for not ordering them to close, saying that means they cannot claim on insurance.

A former adviser to George Osborne has suggested that the total commitment needed from the government coudl be as big as £450billion. 

And giving evidence to MPs this morning, the government’s own fiscal watchdog said ministers must now borrow huge sums to keep UK plc afloat.

They warned there could be a hit of over 5 per cent to the country’s GDP, and ‘wartime’ level of response was needed. 

Office for Budget Responsibility chief Robert Chote suggested that paying firms to waive utility bills and ditching council tax could be a good way of helping the public. 

The experts also mooted the idea of guaranteeing businesses the same revenue this year as in the last 12 months.

Mr Chote said: ‘This is not the time to be squeamish about one-off additions to public sector debt.

‘It’s more like a wartime situation – that this is money well spent.’

French President Emmanuel Macron last night declared ‘war’ on the coronavirus impact, announcing a £300billion fund and guaranteeing that no business in the country will go under as a result of the crisis. 

In the US, some politicians have been advocating so-called ‘helicopter money’ – cash handouts to the public to help keep the economy moving.   

Earlier, Phones 4u mogul John Caudwell warned that the chaos will cost the economy ‘hundreds of billions of pounds, maybe trillions’.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson last night advised Britons to avoid pubs and clubs in a bid to control the spread of the virus. But venue owners have slammed the PM for not telling them to close

The car park at  East Midlands Designer Outlet, in Mansfield, was very sparse today

Office for Budget Responsibility head Robert Chote told MPS that paying firms to waive utility bills and ditching council tax could be a good way of helping the public

Chief medical officer Chris Whitty (centre) and Health Secretary Matt Hancock (right) were in Downing Street for Cabinet today, along with Department of Health permanent secretary Chris Wormald (left) 

He said the £12billion of funding announced in the Budget last week now looked like a joke.   

‘£12billion is zero… Without help millions of people will be out of work,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.  

NHS to axe non-emergency operations to help free up staff and beds 

The NHS is calling off all non-emergency perorations to free up resources to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Matt Hancock told MPs today.

As the UK death toll passed 50 the Health Secretary said all elective surgery that was not time sensitive would either be cancelled or postponed as the health service gears up for the worst of the pandemic.

He told a hushed Commons that ventilators were key to treating those suffering the worst effects of the disease and the Government has asked manufacturers to step up efforts to help in the production of kit needed. 

 He said: ‘The measures that I’ve just outlined are unprecedented in peacetime.

‘We will fight this virus with everything we’ve got.

‘We are in a war against an invisible killer and we’ve got to do everything we can to stop it.’

On another rollercoaster day as the coronavirus threatens to upend capitalism: 

  • Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has advised Britons against all-but essential travel globally. There is pressure for the UK to join the EU in barring all arrivals from outside the bloc;
  • The government is publishing emergency legislation to bring back recently-retired doctors and nurses, enhance sick pay, and  hold criminal trials by video link; 
  • Ministers are scrambling to increase testing capacity after the World Health Organisation said ‘test, test, test’ was the key to fighting the outbreak;
  • Londoners were warned the spread of the virus there is weeks ahead of the rest of the country;
  • The Prime Minister is hoping more ventilators for treating patients will be produced within weeks after holding a conference call with 60 major manufacturers;
  • UK Hospitality said the clampdown could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs; 
  • Mr Johnson has refused to rule out even more radical restrictions on everyday life, such as travel lockdowns and curfews;
  • Donald Trump said disruption caused by the outbreak could last until August;
  • The Grand National has been cancelled;
  • The Archbishops of Canterbury and York appealed for the nation’s citizens to be Good Samaritans.

Mr Sunak is expected to lay out ‘more help’ for sectors including pubs, theatres, clubs and cinemas as they cope with the outbreak.

Airlines have been pleading for a multi-billion pound bailout as international travel effectively grinds to a halt. 

Giving evidence to the Treasury Select Committee today, OBR committee member Charles Bean – a former deputy governor at the Bank of England – said the government should be looking to offset the full impact of the economic hit.

He said that ‘plucking a figure out of the air’ if the impact was equivalent to 5 per cent of GDP, that was how much ministers should inject. 

‘You could say (to business), what was your revenue last over the last year, we will fill any shortfall last year,’ he said.

Another committee member, Andy King, floated the prospect of ‘paying people’s utility bills, paying their council tax bills’.

Mr Chote added: ‘It might be logistically easier to compensate people who would be taking money from households than getting it to them directly.’

The panel pointed out that debt had been pushed up sharply in response to the credit crunch a decade ago, and in this case the impact was down to a health crisis, rather than ‘structural’ problems in the economy that would take longer to recover from.     

Mr Chote said: ‘The priority is not to worry about dotting the Is and crossing the Ts of fiscal rules but to do what is necessary for the economy and the public.’

The OBR cautioned there would ‘inevitably be some scarring’ on the country’s economy, with a number of firms expected to go bust amid the crisis.

But it said the hit was expected to be ‘large but temporary’, both to Britain’s growth as well as the public finances.

The key is to ensure support is given now to help ensure the effects are not long-lasting and that the economy can pick up once the outbreak passes.

‘The more serious this is, the more blunderbuss you have to be in the approach,’ Mr Chote told MPs.

At an historic press conference in Downing Street last night, the PM warned that the coronavirus was now in a phase of rapid spread across the UK, with London seeing a particular surge.  

He said everyone should avoid contact that is not absolutely necessary – with restaurants, bars and cinemas and travel off limits, and an end to large gatherings. Admitting that the squeeze could last 12 weeks or even longer, Mr Johnson acknowledged he was ‘asking a lot’. 

Dominic Raab and Grant Shapps were among the ministers at Cabinet today

Entire households should self-isolate for two weeks if one person has been showing symptoms, and older people should prepare to stay away from risks for months to come. He said that meant ‘you should not go out, even to buy food or essentials’.

But unlike New York – where all bars and restaurants were compelled to close by 8pm local time last night – Mr Johnson said he would rely on businesses and Britons to follow guidance. 

Mr Johnson also said he was not yet ordering schools to be closed, saying he still believed it could make matters worse. 

As the UK coronavirus death toll spiked to 55, the PM said: ‘If necessary, you should ask for help from others for your daily necessities. If that is not possible, you should do what you can to limit your social contact when you leave the house to get supplies.’

‘Now is the time for everyone to stop non-essential contact with others and stop all non-essential travel. We need people to start working from home where they possible can. You should avoid pubs, clubs, theatres and other such social venues.’

In a special plea to the capital, Mr Johnson said people there were at the highest risk. ‘It looks as though London is now a few weeks ahead… it’s important that Londoners now pay special attention to what we are saying about avoiding all non-essential contact.’ 

Giving evidence to the Treasury Select Committee today, OBR committee member Charles Bean – a former deputy governor at the Bank of England – said the government should be looking to offset the full impact of the economic hit

Billionaire Phones 4u mogul John Caudwell said the government must pump hundreds of billions of pounds into a bailout package

Mr Johnson was flanked by Chief medical officer Chris Whitty (left) and chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance (right) at the press conference in Downing Street tonight

The move came after ministers were warned the death toll from the virus could hit 260,000 unless dramatic measures were taken immediately.

Cases of the coronavirus across the UK have now risen to 1,543, with 55 deaths; but there is likely to be many more as tests are being carried out on patients in hospital. 

In France, shops, restaurants and all ‘non-indispensable’ businesses have been forced to shut.

French President Emmanuel Macron vowed last night in a television address that ‘no business will go bust’ because of social distancing rules in the country.

He told the French people they would have to stay home unless they were shopping for food or going to a pharmacy, going to absolutely essential work, or exercising alone.  

In Germany, they announced bars, clubs, and museums will be closed to slow the spread.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell tweeted: ‘We need unequivocal statement from Chancellor today that people’s incomes will be protected businesses will be fully supported to prevent any going out of business as result of the virus, and it has to be on a scale sufficient to meet this crisis. No small measures. Get it right.’ 

In France, shops, restaurants and all ‘non-indispensable’ businesses have been forced to shut. President Macron told the French people they would have to stay home unless they were shopping for food or going to a pharmacy, going to absolutely essential work, or exercising


What is the coronavirus? 

A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.

The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.

Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.

The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals. 

‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses). 

‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’ 

The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.

By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.

The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000. 

Where does the virus come from?

According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.

The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.

Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat. 

A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.

However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.

Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.

‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’  

So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it? 

Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.

It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.

Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.

Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.

‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’

If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die. 

‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.

‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’

How does the virus spread?

The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.

It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.

Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person. 

What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?

Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.

If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.

In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.

Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why. 

What have genetic tests revealed about the virus? 

Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world. 

This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.   

Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.

However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.

This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.   

More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.

How dangerous is the virus?  

The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.

Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.

However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.

Can the virus be cured? 

The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.

No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.

The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.

Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.

People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.

And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).

However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.

Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?   

The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’. 

Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.


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