U.K. warns companies that 20% of workforce could be out as coronavirus cases rise

British businesses were warned as many as 20% of their workers could be forced to take time off during peak periods of infection if the U.K. is hit by a widespread outbreak of coronavirus.

As the number of confirmed infections in the U.K. rose to 51, the government published its plan for dealing with the disease. It included an estimate that in a worst-case, a fifth of the workforce — more than 6 million people — could be absent.

This would have knock-on effects, as others would be forced to take time off to care for those who are ill, or to look after children if schools are closed. Such a peak period of infection would be likely to last around three weeks, the government said.

“As of 9 a.m. today there were 51 confirmed cases in the U.K,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Parliament on Tuesday. “It’s becoming more likely that we’ll see widespread transmission here in this country.”

The minister was updating members of Parliament after premier Boris Johnson unveiled a package of emergency measures to tackle coronavirus on Tuesday. Johnson said he is ready to close schools and cancel public events, though health officials are uncertain whether either would be necessary.

National Effort

“I fully understand public concern, your concern about the global spread of the virus and it is highly likely we will see a growing number of U.K. cases,” Johnson said in London. The government is preparing for “all eventualities,” he said. “Keeping the country safe is our overriding priority.”

He appeared alongside Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty and lead science adviser Patrick Vallance at a news conference to announce steps the government is taking.

The plan, which has been drawn up with devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, sets out measures to slow transmission of the disease.

“This is a national effort. We need everyone to listen to and act on the official medical advice, we need employers to prioritize the welfare of their staff,” Hancock told the House of Commons later on Tuesday.

The government’s current focus is on trying to contain the disease in the U.K. and delay the moment of peak infection until the summer, when the National Health Service is usually less busy than in colder months.

Potential steps in the government action plan include:

  • Bringing health-care professionals out of retirement to treat the sick
  • Relaxing rules on class sizes to allow schools to stay open if teachers become ill
  • Allowing truckers to work longer hours so vital drugs can move around the country
  • Airlines have to declare their passengers are all healthy before they landing in the U.K.

Emergency laws will be introduced to the House of Commons later this month to give the government powers it says it needs to tackle an outbreak. Ministers plan to fast track the legislation through Parliament so it will be in place before the number of cases peaks.

Army Standby

The army is on standby to backfill roles normally carried out by police, such as guarding sensitive sites and power plants, if officers are needed to maintain public order and make up for shortages in regular policing, Johnson’s office said.

The government is talking to businesses to “ensure they understand what the reasonable worst-case scenario is” so they can make preparations for disruption caused by a widespread outbreak of illness among their employees, the prime minister said.

The Treasury will allow companies more time to settle their tax bills if they have cashflow issues caused by the virus, and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak will include financial support for public health efforts in his budget next week. His office is working with the Bank of England to respond to the threat to the U.K. economy from the continued spread of the virus.

“We are taking firm action to support your families, your businesses and the public services on which you rely,” Sunak said in an email. “We are well prepared for this global threat and, as the wider economic picture becomes clearer, we stand ready to announce further support where needed.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—How to think about COVID-19
—Coronavirus spreads to a previously healthy sector: corporate earnings
—Coronavirus is giving China cover to expand its surveillance. What happens next?
—Coronavirus shows why we need vaccines before, not after, an outbreak
—Before coronavirus, there were SARS and MERS. Do epidemics ever really end?

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