London: U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to step up efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus on Monday, announcing a new tiered system of alert levels that would see millions of Britons subject to more stringent curbs on their everyday lives.
The premier will unveil plans to divide England into areas of “medium,” “high” and “very high” alert, with the levels determining the extent of restrictions imposed. The government said it’s working with local leaders to decide which places need to be in the top category, and what curbs are required in those areas.
The harshest measures are likely to be initially focused on areas of northern England such as Liverpool. Rules there, which could include the closure of some hospitality and leisure venues and a request to people to avoid traveling into or out of local hotspots, will be subject to a review every four weeks, according to ITV. While infection rates in London are lower than some parts of the country, Mayor Sadiq Khan warned last week new restrictions for the capital are inevitable.
The prime minister will unveil the latest interventions in Parliament on Monday, before appearing in a televised Downing Street press conference alongside Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty. Announcing a simplified system with Sunak and Whitty could help Johnson avoid the sort of blunder that resulted in him wrongly explaining the guidelines last month, forcing him to acknowledge in public that he “misspoke.”
The announcement comes after a renewed spike in virus cases in the U.K., resulting in a general tightening of regulations and stricter measures, including a ban on household visits, for swathes of the country.
“This is a critical juncture,” a Downing Street spokesperson said. “Our primary focus has always been to protect lives and livelihoods while controlling the spread of the virus and these measures will help achieve that aim.”
In anticipation of fresh curbs, the government on Friday laid out more support for workers in areas hit by local lockdowns, with Sunak pledging to pay two-thirds of the wages of employees in companies forced to close. Economists say that move will only help limit an expected surge in unemployment this winter, amid fears new restrictions will choke off an already sluggish recovery.
Johnson discussed his approach with his cabinet on Sunday, and will lead a meeting of the government’s so-called Cobra emergency committee on Monday. There will also be a public data briefing at Downing Street led by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van Tam, who on Saturday warned the nation has reached a “tipping point” similar to the situation before the countrywide lockdown began in March.
The virus has already killed more than 42,000 people in Britain, and health officials are fearful of another serious wave this winter. A poll from Ipsos MORI on Sunday showed the public largely supports new restrictions, with seven in 10 Britons backing local lockdowns in areas where cases of coronavirus are on the rise.
Johnson’s announcement is set to come as record cases across Europe prompt renewed restrictions on a lockdown-weary public. Italy’s government is reviewing additional measures, France introduced tighter curbs in some of its cities, while the Czech government on Monday will also decide further regulations.
Two major studies last week highlighted how the virus has surged in the U.K. The Office for National Statistics said the infection rate almost doubled in the week through Oct. 1, and Imperial College London estimates there were about 45,000 new infections every day in the period between Sept. 18 and Oct. 5.
With rates of infection varying across the country, a localized approach remains the best way forward, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said on Sky News on Sunday. The tiered approach may mean areas in the lowest level face few changes to current regulations, which include a ban of gatherings of more than six people and a 10 p.m. curfew for the hospitality industry.
Johnson’s approach to stopping the virus has come under fire since the pandemic began. Critics say the U.K. was too slow to impose a strict lockdown in March, while the nation’s testing and contact-tracing efforts have been beset by delays and data errors.
More recently, local leaders have bemoaned the government’s lack of communication and consultation, while discontent among Tory lawmakers has also grown, with many raising fears over the impact of restrictions on people’s civil liberties and the apparent lack of parliamentary scrutiny over the measures.
Downing Street stressed the latest measures had been discussed with local leaders this weekend, with Johnson speaking directly to Steve Rotheram, Metro Mayor of the Liverpool City Region. Lawmakers will be asked to debate and vote on these measures later this week.
In other virus developments:
- Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden is set to announce Monday that more than 1,300 museums, theaters and other arts organizations will receive a share of 257 million pounds in the biggest tranche of spending thus far distributed by the government’s 1.57 billion-pound Culture Recovery Fund
- The Covid Recovery Commission, headed by Tesco Chairman John Allan, published a report showing the virus is widening inequalities in the U.K.’s most deprived neighborhoods
- The Sunday Times reported local mayors will get more control over the coronavirus test-and-trace system, empowering town hall leaders to deploy volunteers to go from door to door and ask people to self-isolate.- Bloomberg