Raising of UK Covid alert level opens door to major restrictions | World news
The UK’s Covid-19 alert level has been raised to four, meaning the virus is “high or rising exponentially” – a move which will give Boris Johnson cover for significant new restrictions to stem the surge of the virus.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the change “reflects the significant shift in the current threat posed by coronavirus”. He added: “This country now faces a tipping point in its response and it is vital everybody plays their part now to stop the spread of the virus and protect lives.”
The prime minister is expected to formally announce the new measures in the House of Commons on Tuesday. They could include a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants and a police clampdown on venues that do not enforce social distancing.
Northern Ireland announced a new ban on households mixing indoors, with some exceptions, while no more than six people from two households can meet in a garden. The change followed an urgent meeting of the Northern Ireland executive on Monday afternoon and a call with Johnson.
The Joint Biosecurity Centre recommended the Covid-19 alert level for the UK be increased to level 4, agreed by the UK’s four chief medical officers (CMOs).
“After a period of lower Covid cases and deaths, the number of cases are now rising rapidly and probably exponentially in significant parts of all four nations,” the CMOs said in a statement, urging people to “please follow the rules, look after each other and together we will get through this”.
Government scientists have warned that new restrictions on daily freedoms are likely to be needed for at least six months, with the virus likely to flourish over winter with little hope of a vaccine for the wider population until spring.
The UK recorded a further 4,368 coronavirus cases on Monday, the second highest daily total since early May and only the third time this autumn the figures have topped 4,000.
In a televised address on Monday, England’s CMO, Chris Whitty, said the UK had “turned a corner” for the worse and the government’s chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, said the country was on course for up to 50,000 new daily cases of Covid-19 by mid-October, which could lead to 200 deaths a day by the following month.
The prime minister convened his Covid strategy committee on Monday. It includes the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, the Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and Hancock.
Johnson will chair a Cobra meeting on Tuesday morning to finalise the new restrictions with Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon, Wales’s Mark Drakeford and Northern Ireland’s Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill. Downing Street said it and the devolved administrations “agreed to act with a united approach, as much as possible, in the days and weeks ahead”.
The decision comes after days of deliberations with scientists, cabinet calls and warnings from the Treasury that many businesses are unlikely to be able to withstand a significant new economic hit.
Over the weekend, health officials had advised the government to “move hard and fast” according to a source in one of the devolved administrations.
Whitty said the number of deaths directly from Covid could rise on an exponential curve, and added that, unlike in March, “the seasons are against us, we are now going into the seasons, late autumn and winter, which benefit respiratory viruses and it is very likely they will benefit Covid as they do flu”.
He said the resurgence of the virus should be seen as “a six-month problem that we have to deal with collectively”.
He said it would not be an indefinite problem and that “science will in due course ride to our rescue” – a hint at the progress of a vaccine which Vallance said could even be available for a limited number of people by the end of the year.
Citing an ONS study, Vallance said it was now estimated that roughly 70,000 people in the UK were infected with Covid and about 6,000 a day were becoming infected. He said being infected with Covid previously was “not an absolute protection” and the vast majority of the population was not immune. The antibody response faded over time, he said, pointing to some cases of reinfection.
Updating MPs in the Commons, Hancock announced one slight easing of the regional lockdowns now affecting more than 13 million people, permitting households in these areas to mix for genuine childcare reasons.
“This covers both formal and informal arrangements,” Hancock said, saying he had been lobbied over the issue by a series of MPs. “It does not allow for play dates or parties, but it does mean that a consistent childcare relationship that is vital for somebody to get to work, is allowed.”
In the Commons however, several Conservative MPs raised concerns about the possible extent of future restrictions. Chris Grayling, the former transport secretary, stressed the social cost of lockdowns, and the difference in infections rates between areas.
“Can I say to him that, given those regional variations, and in the full knowledge of all the pressures he is facing, I do not believe the case for further national measures has yet been made,” Grayling said.
Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, who is to submit an amendment to the Coronavirus Act due to be debated next week to give parliament more scrutiny of decisions, also spoke in the debate, telling Hancock political judgments would be improved if they were subject to scrutiny.