The British government on Friday said it would help cover the wages of people hit by the coronavirus outbreak as it tightened restrictions to curb the spread of the disease.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told cafes, pubs, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres and leisure centres to shut as soon as possible to cut the risk of transmission from close contact.

"We need to keep people apart," he told a news conference, adding the situation would be kept under monthly review, as the UK death toll climbed to 177.

Finance minister Rishi Sunak meanwhile announced what he said was an "unprecedented economic intervention" to protect jobs, after a wave of redundancies caused by a slump in business.

The chancellor of the exchequer earlier this week announced a £330 billion (€361 billion) package of government-backed loans to help business.

But he said there was also a need to protect individuals.

"The government is going to step in and help to pay people's wages," he said.

Firms of any size or non-profits can apply for a grant for up to 80% of salaries of retained workers up to a total of £2,500 (€2,723) a month.

The payments will be backdated to March 1 and be available for about three months, although he did not rule out extending the scheme.

In other measures, he announced a deferment in payment of sales tax for the next quarter to the end of June, which he said was a cash injection for firms worth £30 billion or 1.5% of GDP.

He also said welfare allowances would be increased by £1,000 a year for the next 12 months, which in total was worth £7 billion and would help more than four million people.

Self-employed workers will be able to access the Universal Credit payments in full at a rate equivalent to statutory sick pay available to employees.

He pledged £1 billion to help people struggling to pay the rent by increasing housing benefit payments to cover at least 30% of market rents.

Sunak called the measures "unprecedented... for unprecedented times", adding: "Now, more than at any time in our history, we will be judged by our capacity for compassion."

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