'Half-hearted measures': Rory Stewart says government has made 'serious mistake' in tackling coronavirus

Rory Stewart, independent candidate for mayor of London, has criticised the government response to coronavirus (AFP via Getty Images)

Rory Stewart has criticised the government’s response to coronavirus, accusing it of taking “half-hearted measures”.

The independent London mayoral candidate said Boris Johnson had made a “serious mistake” by not following the lead of other European countries that have closed schools and cancelled sporting events.

The former Tory government minister’s comments came as Italy’s prime minister put his entire country into lockdown in response to the outbreak of Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

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On Monday, the British government decided to remain in the “containment” phase of its planning, meaning measures such as “social distancing” will not be introduced yet.

The UK confirmed its sixth coronavirus death on Tuesday, with the number of cases rising to 373.

Stewart, the former international development secretary, said: "The government has made a serious mistake today.”

In a statement shared on Twitter, he said: “They should be acting much more aggressively to contain coronavirus.

"Schools should be shut now. If the government are not prepared to shut them now, they should - at the very least - state clearly and transparently what their triggers will be for closing schools over the next few days.

"All medium and large gatherings should be cancelled. All passengers coming from hotspots should be tested and quarantined. There is no excuse for passengers not being tested off a plane from Milan last night.

"There is no justification for half-hearted measures.

"China shows both the dangers of acting too slowly – at first – and then the benefits of acting decisively. We should have no regrets about spending money to do the absolute maximum to prevent the spread of this disease."

People wear medical masks as a precaution against coronavirus in central London on Monday (Getty Images)

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Italy’s prime minister Giuseppe Conte put his entire country on lockdown on Monday evening, banning all but the most important travel and halting social gatherings.

It means all 60 million Italians have been told to stay at home – the only travel allowed will be for proven work reasons, health conditions or other cases of necessity.

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Conte said: "Our habits must be changed, changed now. We all have to give up something for the good of Italy. When I speak of Italy, I speak of our dear ones, of our grandparents and of our parents.”

The nationwide restrictions take effect on Tuesday until 3 April and include extending the closures of schools and universities and closing bars, restaurants and cafes at dusk.

Italy has had 9,172 cases of coronavirus, according to John Hopkins University, and the number of deaths has increased to 463. A total of 724 people have recovered from the virus.

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Restrictions on movement initially applied to 11 towns in northern Italy, with a total population of about 50,000 people, before being expanded on Sunday to all of Lombardy and 14 provinces in the neighbouring regions of Veneto, Piedmont and Emilia Romagna.

Boris Johnson outlined the government's response to the coronavirus outbreak on Monday (Getty Images)

The Foreign Office has warned against all but essential travel to Italy.

In the UK, people with "minor" cold, flu or fever symptoms could soon be asked to stay at home in self-isolation.

England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty pointed to tighter measures aimed at protecting the public, particularly the vulnerable and elderly, which could be implemented in the next 10 to 14 days.