Elderly could be quarantined for four months in 'wartime-style' mobilisation to combat coronavirus, writes Robert Peston

People over 70 will be instructed by the government to stay in strict isolation at home or in care homes for four months, under a "wartime-style" mobilisation effort by the government likely to be enforced within the next 20 days.

It is part of a series of measures being prepared by the prime minister, health secretary, chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser to prevent the health service from "falling over" and to save lives as Covid-19 becomes an epidemic in the UK.

Other measures already being planned include:

  • the forced requisitioning of hotels and other buildings as temporary hospitals;

  • the requisitioning of private hospitals as emergency hospitals;

  • temporary closure of pubs, bars and restaurants - some time after next weekend's ban on mass gatherings;

  • emergency manufacture by several companies of respirators that would be necessary to keep alive those who become acutely ill;

  • the closure of schools for perhaps a few weeks, but with skeleton staff kept on to provide childcare for key workers in the NHS and police.

According to a senior government source, the perception that ministers are reluctant to make difficult and costly decisions to battle the virus is wrong. It is simply that the chief medical officer Chris Whitty and the chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance are waiting for the optimal time to force restrictions on our way of life that will be very painful.

They are deeply worried that some older people will simply die at home from neglect, after they are quarantined, so want to start the quarantine as late as possible - some time within the next five to 20 days.

The prime minister Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock are counting on neighbours and friends to rally round to make sure no one is neglected. "We are looking for a huge community effort," said a source.

According to a senior government source, the perception that ministers are reluctant to make difficult and costly decisions to battle the virus is wrong. Credit: PA

The prime minister's adviser, Dominic Cummings, has also initiated conversations with Uber and Deliveroo about taking food to the old and vulnerable when they are put into forced isolation.

As I have written in previous notes, all government efforts are based on the assumptions that there won't be a vaccine within a year and that everything has to be done to protect the collapse of the health service.

What keeps ministers and officials awake at night is the fear that if the epidemic becomes too great they would have to make appalling decisions, such as that the NHS would stop treating people over a certain age, such as 65.

"Everything is aimed at making sure the NHS is not overwhelmed, to save lives and to prevent hideous choices having to be made," said a source.

Plans are also well under way for doctors to give consultations to patients quarantined at home by video links over the internet.

PS. There are two other aspects of this wartime mobilisation

1) Army hospitals will be used.

2) Lockdowns of cities or parts of cities have NOT been ruled out.

Coronavirus: Everything you need to know

  • Listen and subscribe to our weekly politics podcast Calling Peston - available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts