The British government unveiled its "battle plan" to tackle the spread of coronavirus on Tuesday, with possible measures including school closures, home working and cancelling large-scale gatherings to delay the peak of the outbreak.
The United Kingdom has so far had 39 confirmed cases of the virus, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday a "very significant expansion" was possible.
The government's plan says as many as one fifth of employees may be absent from work during peak weeks of the outbreak, and businesses could be given extra time to pay their taxes if they are facing short-term cash flow issues.
"It is highly likely coronavirus will spread more widely in the coming days and weeks, which is why we’re making every possible preparation," Johnson said. He later held a news conference on Tuesday alongside England's Chief Medical Officer and the government's Chief Scientific Adviser.
The plan includes the option of encouraging more home working and discouraging unnecessary travel as part of what it called a "social distancing" strategy to delay the peak of the outbreak until later in the year when the weather is warmer and the health service is under less seasonal pressure.
This would also give more time for testing of drugs and development of vaccines, the government said.
Other measures include looking at emergency registration for health professionals who have retired and delaying non-urgent health care. If staff shortages impact emergency services such as the police force, they will focus on responding to serious crimes and maintaining public order.
If the outbreak worsens or is severe and prolonged, the government said it would move from seeking to contain and delay the outbreak to mitigating its impact.
The government will launch a major public information campaign later this week, run from a "war room" in the Cabinet Office, setting out steps people can take to limit the spread of the virus, such as washing their hands regularly.
Johnson's office said it would also publish legislation in the coming weeks which would give the government necessary powers to prepare for and tackle the outbreak.
Health Minister Matt Hancock told BBC TV the government was not planning yet to cancel mass gatherings or large sports events, but said it did not rule out introducing "no-go zones".
The Treasury said finance minister Rishi Sunak had asked officials to draw up "further measures to support the public health response, businesses and the economy as needed" and would give an update when he presents his first budget to parliament on March 11.