Construction workers sit on a bench at Nine Elms in south London on 24 March 2020

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Ministers say construction work can continue so long as people keep 2m (6.5ft) apart

The government is facing growing pressure to stop non-essential construction work to help tackle the spread of coronavirus in the UK.

On Tuesday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said those who cannot do their jobs from home should go to work to “keep the country running”.

Construction work can continue so long as people are 2m (6.5ft) apart, Mr Hancock said.

But critics said public health should be prioritised over the economy.

Former Tory cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith joined those calling for a pause to non-essential work, telling BBC Two’s Newsnight: “I think the balance is where we should delete some of those construction workers from going to work and focus only on the emergency requirements.”

Andy Burnham, Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, told the programme the decision to allow non-essential work appeared to have been made for “economic reasons”.

“When you’re in the middle of a global pandemic, health reasons alone really should be guiding all decision-making,” he said.

Boris Johnson, who faces Prime Minister’s Questions later, has so far resisted pressure from politicians, unions and workers themselves to halt construction work.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said building sites should close, unless it involves an essential building such as a hospital.

It comes as several sources tell the BBC that Parliament could shut down later, with no MPs sitting in the House of Commons for almost four weeks.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said motions have been tabled for MPs to vote to agree to rise later, with a “managed return” on 21 April.

On Tuesday, the number of coronavirus deaths in the UK rose to 422, according to the latest Department of Health figures, with more than 8,000 confirmed cases of the virus.

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Media captionA construction worker filmed colleagues failing to distance themselves

Some builders and construction workers have said they feel “angry and unprotected” going to work, while others are under pressure from employers to go in.

But speaking at the daily coronavirus briefing in Downing Street on Tuesday, Mr Hancock said construction workers – many of whom work outdoors – could and should continue to go to work as long as they are able to remain 2m apart at all times.

“The judgment we have made is that in work, in many instances, the 2m rule can be applied,” he said.

The confusion over who should and should not be travelling for work came after government guidance announced by Mr Johnson on Monday curtailed many freedoms on life in the UK.

The prime minister said people should only leave their home to shop for basic goods, to fulfil medical or care needs, to exercise, and to travel to and from work – but only where “absolutely necessary”.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s office has called on the government to act urgently to get more people to stay at home following images of packed Tube trains appearing on social media.

Mr Hancock, however, said the London Underground should be running in full so people were able to space out.

On Tuesday evening, hundreds of British Transport Police were deployed onto the rail network to tell travellers that only those making essential journeys for work should be using tubes and trains.

Also on Tuesday, Mr Hancock appealed for 250,000 volunteers to help the NHS and said more than 11,000 former medics had answered the government’s call to return to the NHS.

More than 24,000 final-year student nurses and medics will also join the health service.

It was also announced that the NHS will treat coronavirus patients in a makeshift field hospital in the ExCeL Centre in east London.

Meanwhile, the government is considering the early release of some prisoners in England and Wales to relieve pressure caused by the outbreak, in particular 50 pregnant prisoners.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the virus posed an “acute” risk in prisons, many of which were overcrowded and faced staff shortages as officers self-isolated.

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Terry Dolzyc

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Tube commuters packed into carriages on Tuesday despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s lockdown announcement on Monday

Elsewhere, the government remains under pressure to provide financial support for self-employed workers who face a loss of income if forced to stop working due to sickness or quarantine.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, told Newsnight a support package would be announced soon, adding: “I believe the government has reached a conclusion about that.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has promised help for the self-employed in “the coming days” but said coming up with a plan had proved “incredibly complicated”.

In other key developments:

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