Wednesday 25 March 2020 5:30 pm

Coronavirus: Government recruits 405,000 volunteer army

More than 400,000 people have registered to join the government’s volunteer army in a bid to support frontline services grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.

Health secretary Matt Hancock yesterday announced that Downing Street was looking for 250,000 fit and healthy people sign up to join the new NHS Volunteer scheme. This afternoon Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed 405,000 people had responded.

They will drive supplies including medicines and make phone calls to the vulnerable, among other things.

Johnson praised those who had volunteered alongside existing frontline staff, stressing “our NHS has only limited numbers of doctors, nurses and equipment” which is why people should stay at home where possible.

During the press conference, which was again held with journalists asking questions remotely, Johnson and the two chiefs – Chris Witty, chief medical officer and Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser – came under fire for lack of testing.

Witty insisted there are sufficient tests for people in hospitals, and can be scaled up, but said there was a “global shortage” of tests for NHS and other critical workers who are having to self isolate.

In the hierarchy of testing, authorities would like tests for people showing mild symptoms after frontline workers, he added.

As well as this, the antibody test – which will tell if someone has had Covid-19 – is “quite close, and being evaluated this week”, Witty said. The UK has bought 3.5m of these tests, which it is now assessing for accuracy.

“The only thing worse than no test is a bad test,” he noted.

Asked why the UK was still not following countries such as Italy, which have imposed more draconian measures on freedom of movement, including non-essential work, Witty stressed that the UK’s modelling had been based on the idea that “quite a lot of people would have to go to work”.

But people should not engage in “discretionary” activities, such as socialising. This allows “absolutely essential things” to continue.

The pressure on the NHS is going to intensify in the coming weeks, but if everybody sticks to the social distancing rules the situation will be “probably manageable”.

“This is going to be a close-run thing,” he added. “We all know that.”