Coronavirus: Boris Johnson was shaking hands as some scientists were calling for it to stop

The prime minister continued to shake hands even as some scientists advising the government on its coronavirus response were calling for the practice to be halted, it has emerged.

Scientists were calling for an end to hugging and handshakes in early March, newly-released papers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) shows.

On 3 March, the SPI-B group of behavioural scientists said the directive would have sent an important signal about the need for good hand hygiene in stopping the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

That same day, Boris Johnson told a Downing Street news conference that he was continuing to shake the hands of people he met.

Later that week, the PM made a point of shaking hands with This Morning presenter Phillip Schofield, even though the presenter kept his hands to his sides when he interviewed Mr Johnson for the ITV show.

Mr Johnson was also pictured shaking hands with England rugby captain Owen Farrell at Twickenham.

He was then photographed shaking hands with boxer Anthony Joshua on 9 March, during the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey.

Asked about the contents of the paper, the PM's spokesman said that Mr Johnson would not have been aware at the time of the document, which did not at that point represent the considered view of SAGE.

"The PM wouldn't have seen that advice," the spokesman said.

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"The PM was very clear at the time, he was taking a number of precautionary steps including frequently washing his hands.

"Once the social distancing advice was changed, the prime minister's approach changed."

The SPI-B paper said: "There was agreement that government should advise against greetings such as shaking hands and hugging, given existing evidence about the importance of hand hygiene.

"A public message against shaking hands has additional value as a signal about the importance of hand hygiene.

"Promoting a replacement greeting or encouraging others to politely decline a proffered hand-shake may have benefit."

The same day, Mr Johnson told reporters at a Downing Street briefing: "I am shaking hands. I was at a hospital the other night where I think there were coronavirus patients and I was shaking hands with everybody, you will be pleased to know, and I continue to shake hands.

"People must make up their own minds but I think the scientific evidence is ... our judgment is that washing your hands is the crucial thing."

The news emerged as it was confirmed that the UK has now passed Italy and has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths in Europe.