The UK government has conceded that the initial number of confirmed coronavirus cases is not an accurate figure, with the actual number closer to 10,000.
The government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said the current figure of 590 was much more likely to be between 5000 and 10,000.
“We are in a period when we have got some, but it hasn’t yet taken off,” he said.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said it was possible that up to 80 per cent of the UK population would catch the virus.
“We think that the peak may be something like 10 to 14 weeks away – it may be a bit longer,” he said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said they would be stepping up the response to the outbreak with new actions designed to delay its spread.
“This is the worst public health crisis for a generation,” he said. “Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
The government has advised anyone showing cold or flu-like symptoms to isolate themselves for seven days, stay at least two metres, or “about three steps”, away from anyone else, sleep alone and ask for help “to get the things you need”.
However, sporting events will still go ahead, with fans allowed into stadiums.