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article imageUK 'can turn tide' of coronavirus in 12 weeks: Johnson

By Alice RITCHIE, James PHEBY, David HARDING (AFP)     Mar 19, 2020 in Health

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday that Britain could "turn the tide" on coronavirus within 12 weeks -- but only if people heed advice to avoid social contact.

"We can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks, and I'm absolutely confident we can send coronavirus packing in this country," he said at his daily press conference.

"But only if we all take the steps we have outlined, and that is vital because that is how we're going to reduce the peak."

The government has also promised to ramp up testing of the virus, from 5,000 to 10,000 per day "by next week", with the goal of conducting 25,000 within a month.

So far 144 people have died in Britain, with 3,269 confirmed cases -- although health officials warned this week that the true number of infections could be 55,000.

Johnson did not announce new measures on Thursday to stem the outbreak, but denied rumours he could shut down public transport in London, the worst affected area.

Transport officials have closed dozens of London Underground stations, but are maintaining the system to enable "critical workers to make essential journeys".

Johnson had on Wednesday bowed to public pressure to close schools from next week, although some will remain open for the children of health and other 'key' workers.

On Thursday he praised people's "extraordinary efforts" so far in following advice to avoid non-essential social contact and travel, and to work from home.

"But if we feel it isn't working... and we need to bring forward tougher measures, then of course nothing is ruled out," he told reporters, themselves sitting apart.

- Economic measures -

Johnson said new measures to help businesses would be announced on Friday -- and urged firms struggling with the outbreak not to fire staff.

MPs and industry bodies have raised alarm at reports of mass lay-offs in many sectors, including hospitality.

"Stand by your employees, because we're going to stand by you," the premier said.

The Bank of England had earlier cut its main interest rate to a record-low 0.1 percent from 0.25 percent, to tackle an "economic shock" from the outbreak.

It joined other central banks in stepping up action by also increasing holdings of UK government and corporate bonds to £645 billion ($766 billion, 700 billion euros).

Elsewhere, Johnson urged people to "please be reasonable in your shopping" as supermarkets emptied out of crucial items -- notably toilet roll -- across Britain.

The government on Thursday said it was temporarily relaxing elements of competition law to allow supermarkets to work together to maintain supplies.

This includes sharing data on stock levels, or cooperating on deliveries or even pooling staff, officials said.

- Royal, religious messages -

Earlier Queen Elizabeth II urged people to work together, in her first official message on the outbreak.

The 93-year-old monarch and her husband, Prince Philip, moved from London to Windsor Castle on Thursday because of the virus.

"I am reminded that our nation's history has been forged by people and communities coming together to work as one, concentrating our combined efforts with a focus on the common goal," she said in a statement issued by Buckingham Palace.

"Now more than any time in our recent past, we all have a vitally important part to play as individuals -- today and in the coming days, weeks and months."

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, will also use the Church of England's first virtual service on Sunday to urge worshippers to help others.

"We will find we are deeply consoled by our own gift of consolation," he will say, according to an advance extract.

The Church announced that weddings during the coronavirus outbreak should be limited to a maximum of five people, including the bride and groom.

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