Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has denounced the government’s decision to not trigger social distancing measures in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Hunt, who now chairs the Commons health and social care committee, said that the government’s decision following Thursday’s cobra meeting was “concerning”.
However, prime minister Boris Johnson stressed the importance of timing the implementation of measures such as closing schools and cancelling events, hinting that people will tire of being isolated after several continuous weeks.
The government’s health advisers are working on the basis that infection rates will not peak in the UK for up to three months.
Hunt, who left his role as foreign secretary in July when Johnson strung together his first cabinet, told the BBC that the coronavirus outbreak was a “national emergency”.
He took aim at the government’s approach, saying: "I think it is surprising and concerning that we're not doing any of it [social distancing] at all when we have just four weeks before we get to the stage that Italy is at.
"You would have thought that every single thing we do in that four weeks would be designed to slow the spread of people catching the virus.”
Italy’s death toll now exceeds 1,000, and is the worst-affected European country.
Hunt added that countries which had “moved very early” in implementing social distancing had fared better in fighting the virus, and expressed surprise that “external visits to care homes” were still being permitted.
Ten people have died in the UK with 596 cases having been confirmed as of Friday morning.
Among the measures Johnson announced on Thursday, it was advised that anybody showing new symptoms such as a persistent cough or high temperature should immediately self-isolate for seven days, with Public Health England adding that they should not attend school, work, enter public places nor use public transport.
The government is still weighing up the prospect of cancelling sports fixtures and other major events, but Johnson said there was no need for schools to close since the “scientific advice is that this could do more harm than good at this time”.