Boris Johnson has warned the number of coronavirus cases is “stark” and “accelerating” as he tells adults the best present they can give their mother for Mother’s Day is to stay away.
In a blunt Mother’s Day message, the prime minister said an elderly or vulnerable mother was much more likely to die from coronavirus – and it was impossible to “sugar coat” the threat.
He claimed the best present adults could give this Mothering Sunday was to spare their mother the risk of catching coronavirus. “The sad news is that means staying away,” he said.
Justifying his coronavirus warning, he said: “The numbers are very stark, and they are accelerating.
“The Italians have a superb health care system. And yet their doctors and nurses have been completely overwhelmed by the demand. The Italian death toll is already in the thousands and climbing.
“Unless we act together, unless we make the heroic and collective national effort to slow the spread – then it is all too likely that our own NHS will be similarly overwhelmed. That is why this country has taken the steps that it has, in imposing restrictions never seen before either in peace or war.”
Instead of a visit, the prime minister recommended a phone call, video call or Skype. And in what sounded like a ban on kissing or hugging, he said physical contact or getting close should be avoided.
Mr Johnson’s own mother, Charlotte, is 77 and a successful painter. She was married to his father Stanley for 16 years until they divorced. She remarried, but is now widowed. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease aged 40.
The prime minister last month settled his divorce from his estranged wife Marina, with whom he has four grown up children, shortly before announcing his engagement to girlfriend Carrie, 32 this week, who is now pregnant.
Mr Johnson also has a daughter with art consultant Helen Macintyre and there has been speculation – about which he has refused to answer questions – that he has fathered another extra-marital child.
In his coronavirus message, he said: “Today is Mother’s Day. It is a day when we celebrate the sacrifice and the effort of those who gave us life, and across the country I know that millions of people will have been preparing to do something special; not just a card, not just flowers.
“I know that everyone’s strongest instinct is to go and see their mothers in person, to have a meal together, to show them how much you love them.
“But I am afraid that this Mothering Sunday the single best present that we can give – we who owe our mothers so much – is to spare them the risk of catching a very dangerous disease. The sad news is that means staying away.
“This time the best thing is to ring her, video call her, Skype her, but to avoid any unnecessary physical contact or proximity. And why?
“Because if your mother is elderly or vulnerable, then I am afraid all the statistics show that she is much more likely to die from coronavirus, or COVID-19. We cannot disguise or sugar coat the threat.”
Mr Johnson’s tough Mother’s Day message comes only days after a Downing Street news conference at which he urged adults to think carefully before visiting their mother this Sunday.
But then he said: “I will certainly be sending her my very best wishes and hope to get to see her.” That prompted aides to tell reporters hurriedly that he meant he would be seeing her via Skype.
Mr Johnson added: “We have closed the schools, the pubs, the bars, the restaurants, the gyms, and we are asking people to stay and work at home if they possibly can.
“In order to help businesses and workers through the crisis, we have come up with unprecedented packages of support. All of this is putting our country, and our society, under enormous strain.
“But already this crisis is also bringing out the best in us all – in the army of volunteers that has sprung up to help the vulnerable, in the millions of acts of kindness; in the work of all the people who are continuing to provide essential services, from transport workers to supermarket staff to health and social care workers.
“Yes, this disease is forcing us apart – at least physically. But this epidemic is also the crucible in which we are already forging new bonds of togetherness and altruism and sharing.
“This country will be changed by coronavirus, but there is every reason to think we will come through it stronger and better than ever before. And the more effectively we follow the medical advice, the faster we will bounce back to health – medically and economically.
“So this Mothering Sunday let’s all do everything we can to show our respect and love to those who gave us life – and minimise the risk to their own lives.”
The government and health officials have urged the 1.5 million people in England considered most at risk from the disease because of their health conditions to begin “shielding” themselves by staying at home.
Letters will go out this week “strongly advising” them not to go out for at least 12 weeks from Monday.
The government has also announced a new local support system to ensure people self-isolating at home without support networks can have basic groceries delivered.
Military planners, already helping councils and local resilience forums in their responses to the outbreak, have been centrally involved in setting up the new network.
The number of COVID-19-related deaths in the UK reached 233 on Saturday, the same as Italy’s total two weeks ago. Italy’s toll has since risen to 4,825, making it the hardest-hit country in the world.