LONDON – Millions of people in northern England are anxiously waiting to hear how much further virus restrictions will be tightened in coming days as the British government confirmed Sunday that it will be introducing a new system for local lockdowns.
In response to the virus’ resurgence, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce in Parliament on Monday a three-tier local lockdown system, formally known as "Local COVID Alert Levels," for England, his office said.
Under the new system, the country will be placed into “medium,” “high” and “very high” alert levels. Johnson's office said the government is working with local leaders to decide which areas are covered by the very high alert level, and the appropriate interventions in those areas.
Details of what is involved at each level haven't been confirmed but the highest level is widely expected to involve the closure of pubs and restaurants and the banning of household mixing, both indoors and outside, among other measures.
The new lockdown system, which is intended to simplify the process by which local restrictions are imposed, has been widely anticipated for a couple of weeks following a sharp increase in new cases. Following further discussions early Monday, Johnson will inform lawmakers of the new system before hosting a briefing along with Treasury chief Rishi Sunak and the government's chief medical officer, Chris Whitty.
England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, warned that the U.K. is at a “tipping point" akin to where the country was in March.
“But we can prevent history repeating itself if we all act now,” he said . “Now we know where it is and how to tackle it — let’s grasp this opportunity and prevent history from repeating itself.”
All across Europe including the U.K., there have been huge increases in coronavirus cases over the past few weeks following the reopening of large sectors of the economy, as well as schools and universities. Infection levels — and deaths — in the U.K. are rising at their fastest rates in months.
Without quick action, there are fears that U.K. hospitals will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks at a time of year when they are already at their busiest with winter-related afflictions like the flu. The U.K. has experienced Europe's deadliest outbreak, with an official death toll of 42,825, up another 65 on Sunday.
Although coronavirus infections are rising throughout England, northern cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle have seen a disproportionate increase. While some rural areas in eastern England have less than 20 cases per 100,000 people, some major metropolitan areas have recently recorded levels above 500 per 100,000, nearly as bad as Madrid or Brussels.
As a result, national restrictions such as a 10 p.m. curfew on pubs and restaurants have been supplemented by local actions, including in some cases banning contacts between households. In Scotland’s two biggest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh, pubs have already closed for 16 days to suppress the outbreak.
Liverpool’s local leader has said he expects his city to face the most onerous restrictions from Wednesday.
Local leaders across northern England have vented their fury at the Conservative government over what they see as an “inadequate” wage support scheme that it announced Friday and for not properly telling them about the upcoming restrictions. The wage plan aims to help employees in companies that are forced to close because of virus restrictions, but mayors say it's not generous enough in paying only two-thirds of employees' wages and doesn't compensate those indirectly hit by any business closures, such as drink suppliers to pubs.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick on Sunday sought to assuage concerns that the government was being overly hierarchical in its approach. He also indicated that local authorities will be given more control over the national test and trace program, which has struggled to live up to Johnson's prediction that it would be “world-beating.”
“In addition to the national infrastructure which is developing and increasing with every passing week, we’re also going to be making use of local councils to do contact tracing in particular, because there is clear evidence that local councils are good at that, as you’d expect,” he told the BBC.