Councils in England have been asked to house all rough sleepers – and those in hostels and night shelters – by the weekend.
The prime minister’s personal homelessness adviser wrote to local authorities telling them “communal night-shelters and any street encampments” must be “closed down for the time being” as they are “high risk” for spreading COVID-19.
Dame Louise Casey said the aim is that “everybody can have an offer of accommodation by this weekend” – and that Whitehall will offer “support and advice” to help.
The government confirmed the news several hours after Sky News broke the story.
Rough sleepers have faced a particularly tough time in recent weeks given the latest lockdown advice for people to stay at home.
They are also significantly more likely to have underlying health conditions – including respiratory problems – than the wider population.
But on Thursday Dame Louise wrote to council homelessness managers and rough sleeping coordinators: “As you know, this is a public health emergency.
“We are all redoubling our efforts to do what we possibly can at this stage to ensure that everybody is inside and safe by this weekend, and we stand with you in this.
“These are unusual times so I’m asking for an unusual effort.
“Many areas of the country have already been able to ‘safe harbour’ their people which is incredible. What we need to do now though is work out how we can get ‘everyone in’.”
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, called it a “landmark moment” and “the right thing to do”.
But he added questions remained unanswered about how councils will be supported to fund the move and if more money from central government or help securing hotel rooms will be provided.
And he called for Downing Street to make sure that when the COVID-19 outbreak dies down people do not simply return to sleeping rough.
A housing department spokesperson said: “We are working intensively with councils and the sector to get everyone who is sleeping rough off the streets and into appropriate accommodation – backed by £1.6bn of additional funding for councils to respond to pressures during this national emergency.”
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, called two days ago for the government to show homeless families “the same level of commitment and determination” as many other parts of society to protect people from coronavirus.
Scotland’s largest cities have already drawn up plans to help and protect homeless people during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Councils there have secured extra emergency accommodation for self-isolation of rough sleepers, as well as providing care packages.
In Wales, the devolved government has pledged £10m to councils to help rough sleepers by block booking B&B or hotel rooms, empty student accommodation and other premises .