The chancellor has poured cold water on the need for a US-style travel ban, saying there was “no evidence” such measures could prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Rishi Sunak said the decision by Donald Trump to temporarily restrict travel from European countries was unlikely to a “material effect” on the spread of the infection and warned the move could have a knock-on effect on the British economy.
It comes as the UK was expected to escalate its response to the coronavirus outbreak after an emergency Cobra meeting on Thursday.
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Boris Johnson will chair talks with medical experts and ministers later, where the government is expected to agree to shift to the “delay” phase of its coronavirus action plan.
New measures could include school closures, cancelling large public gatherings and encouraging people to work from home as health officials try to stem the spread of the virus.
The US president announced he was shutting down all travel from 26 countries in the Schengen area from 20 March, to prevent the spread of the “foreign virus”. The UK and Ireland are not covered by the ban.
Mr Sunak told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “With regard to flight bans, we are always guided by the science as we make our decisions here.
“The advice we are getting is there isn’t evidence that interventions like closing borders or travel bans are going to have a material affect on the spread of the infection. That’s why we have taken the decisions that we have.”
Asked about the impact on business and tourism that the ban is likely to have, the cabinet minister said: “The US is still deciding the details of what exactly that means, but you are right.
“As I talked about yesterday, there will be an impact on the demand side of our economy as people are unable to spend in the way they normally would and travel, but it also affects the supply chains for businesses and that impacts the supply side of our economy.
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“As those supply chains are disrupted, the productive capacity of our economy will shrink for a period of time.
“With regard to flight bans, we are always guided by the science as we make our decisions here and the advice we are getting is that there isn’t the evidence that interventions like closing borders or travel bans are going to have a material effect on the spread of the infection.”
European Commission president Charles Michel said the EU would “assess the situation today” following Mr Trump’s surprise announcement of a travel ban.
He said: “Economic disruption must be avoided. Europe is taking all necessary measures to contain the spread of the COVID19 virus, limit the number of affected people and support research.”
It comes after eight people died from coronavirus in the UK, while the total number of positive cases rose to 460 – the largest jump in a single day.
A cabinet minister, who has not been named, was self-isolating while awaiting a test result after coming into contact with health minister Nadine Dorries, Whitehall sources confirmed.
Ms Dorries is self-isolating at home after being diagnosed with the illness, while several other MPs have self isolated.