Downing Street said Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will step in as PM if Boris Johnson, who has not yet tested for the killer disease, falls ill with coronavirus. Mr Raab has tested negative twice for COVD-19 after suffering with a cough.
It comes as Downing Street drew up emergency plans to ensure Number 10 could continue to fight the pandemic if Mr Johnson or one of his top aides becomes sick.
The number of deaths in the UK rose to 281 on Sunday as an 18-year-old was thought to have become the youngest victim of the virus in Britain.
There are growing fears Britain is on a similar trajectory to Italy – scene of the world’s worst outbreak – where the death toll passed 5,000 over the weekend.
The decision to put Mr Raab in place has sparked clashes in the cabinet with Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove and Health Secretary Matt Hancock reportedly upset they were not considered.
One minister told The Times: “If Boris can’t do his job because he is incapacitated, a lot of people think that Michael should be running the show, not Raab. One of these people is Michael, of course.”
Another said: “Michael thinks the Cabinet should be co-ordinating everything.
“Matt thinks that since he’s running the lead department he should be allowed to get on with it.”
The appointment comes after a source told The Daily Mail: “Both Michael and Matt seem to be listening for the first cough from Boris and wondering which of them will step up when he is self-isolating.”
Mr Johnson is under mounting pressure to order a widespread lockdown after thousands of people ignored calls for “social distancing” to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
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The Prime Minister said he will be thinking “very, very actively” about what steps to take if people continue to gather in large numbers in defiance of calls to stay apart.
There was anger among MPs at scenes over the weekend of crowds flocking to parks, markets, beaches and beauty spots.
Mr Johnson warned the NHS could be “overwhelmed” in the same way as the Italian healthcare system has been, if the spread of the virus in the UK is not curbed.
But at his daily Number 10 press conference on Sunday, Mr Johnson indicated he was reluctant to ban people from going outside for a walk or to exercise because of the physical and mental health benefits, as long as they acted responsibly.
The Government later issued updated guidance making clear that essential travel did not include visits to “second homes, camp sites, caravan parks or similar, whether for isolation purposes or holidays”.
Meanwhile letters are going out to 1.5 million people with underlying health conditions who are considered to be the most vulnerable to the coronavirus telling them to stay at home for the next 12 weeks.
The Government said it would ensure those without families and friends to support them would continue to receive food and medicines, with the military helping to organise deliveries.
Schools across the country will be opening their gates only to the children of key workers considered essential to the running of the country, with apparent confusion over how many will be admitted.
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