Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, has rejected criticism the government is being too slow to introduce measures limiting the spread of coronavirus, saying ministers are rigorously following scientific advice rather than “doing things that just sound good”.
Speaking on a broadcast round, Shapps indicated that further restrictions could be announced following a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee on Monday, perhaps connected to large gatherings.
And following a wave of flight cancellations by airlines including easyJet, Shapps said the government would examine “lots of different options” to help the sector.
Ministers have come under pressure over a perception other countries, particularly elsewhere in Europe, are taking more stringent measures to combat the virus, and about a perceived lack of openness. News that older Britons could be told to self-isolate for months first emerged via an off-the-record briefing to ITV.
Boris Johnson will seek to address criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic by holding the first of what are intended to be daily ministerial press conferences on the crisis on Monday.
Shapps told Sky News the government was being led by “a real desire to be driven by the evidence and by the science”.
He said: “I don’t think that necessarily means that our approach is markedly different. But I do think it means we deploy each of these different measures at the appropriate time.”
Shapps said more measures could emerge after the Cobra meeting on Monday afternoon. “We are just being entirely science-led. We are not doing the things that perhaps are happening elsewhere just because it seems like a popular thing to do. We want to know that the scientists back it.”
With the virus the UK was arguably “at a slightly different stage compared with places like Italy but also a little behind where France and Germany are”, Shapps said. “It’s not that we’re not going to get there, but of course our responses are timed in a different way, unique to the particular stage of this that we’re in in the UK.”
He said: “I do think it’s important that we do not get knocked off the course of what this country has done very well so far, which is to follow the medical and scientific advice, rather than doing things that just sound good but perhaps don’t have the right impact at the right moment in time.”
On the way the news about people over 70 being told to stay at home emerged, Shapps said the government wanted to be “completely open”, pointing to the new daily press conferences. But he added: “I’m afraid I can’t be in control of every blog that a political journalist decides to write.”
On the troubles faced by airlines such as Easyjet, which announced more “significant cancellations” on Monday, Shapps said viable companies would be offered help, for example on deferring tax, to help them cope with the global disruption.
He said: “We want to make sure that companies and organisations who are in a good state, not those who were going to fail anyway, are able to continue. We’ll be looking at all these measures, and I’ll be discussing them with the chancellor and the prime minister.”
Speaking later on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Shapps said he would also hold discussions with train companies, saying there had been a drop-off in rail travel of up to 20% over the past week. Train firms could be freed of obligations under their franchises to run certain services if these were empty, he said.
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