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Boris Johnson unveils 'three-tier system' in England to deal with COVID-19 spread

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Members of the public pass a public information message in central Manchester.
Members of the public pass a public information message in central Manchester.   -   Copyright  Jon Super/Jon Super
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday announced a new three-tier system to get a grip on the creeping spread of coronavirus in England.

The strategy is designed to tailor appropriate measures to combat the localised spread of the virus with different areas of the country labelled "medium", "high" or "very high" risk.

The tiered local alert framework will be determined by infection rates, with each level imposing increasingly stricter restrictions.

"This is not how we want to live our lives, but this is the narrow path we have to tread between the social and economic trauma of a full lockdown, and the massive human and indeed economic cost of an uncontained epidemic," Johnson told the House of Commons.

At a press conference later on Monday, Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that business forced to close in the UK due to the new regulations could receive £3,000 per month to help them weather COVID-19.

Speaking at the same event on Monday night, Johnson defended further restrictions in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

“These figures are flashing at us like dashboard warnings in a passenger jet, and we must act now,” he said.

'Tipping point'

It comes as England's deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, warned on Sunday that the country was at a "tipping point," adding that "the seasons are against us."

"In our national fight against COVID-19, we are at a tipping point similar to where we were in March; but we can prevent history repeating itself if we all act now," he said in a statement.

England's R-number, which indicates the rate of transmission, is currently estimated to be between 1.2 and 1.5.

An R-number of 1 means that, on average, every person infected with coronavirus will infect one other person. Anything above 1 means that the rate of infection increases exponentially.

"I must warn the House the weeks and months ahead will continue to be difficult and will test the mettle of this country. I have no doubt at all that together we will succeed," Johnson added.

Responding to the statement, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the country was "at a critical moment," adding that "nobody should be under any illusions" about where rates of the virus in the UK are heading or the need for decisive action.

He criticised the government's handling of the pandemic, saying that Johnson was "several steps behind the curve and running to catch up with a virus that he lost control of long ago".

"I am now deeply sceptical that the government has actually got a plan to get control of this virus, to protect jobs or regain public trust," Starmer said.

New restrictions

Under the tiered system, the whole country will be placed on the "medium" risk level with the so-called "rule of six" and curfew staying in place.

In addition to existing measures, the "high" alert level will mean an end to all socialising indoors between households and the introduction of the rule of six outdoors.

The "very high" alert level will kick in when the NHS is at risk of being overwhelmed and the rate of infection increases. All mixing indoors will be banned with pubs and restaurants forced to close.

In his statement to the Commons, Johnson confirmed that Liverpool would be the first to see its level raised to "very high" after the city and surrounding region recorded 600 cases per 100,000 population in the week ending October 6. England's average was 74.

Cheshire and Nottinghamshire will be put on "high" alert, Johnson said.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Monday, Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotherham said the new restrictions would last four weeks before being reviewed again.

Betting shops, casinos, swimming pools and gyms in the region would all be forced to close under the new restrictions.

Retail, schools and universities in all affected areas will remain open, regardless of the level of alert.

North preparing for second wave

NHS Nightingale hospitals in Manchester, Sunderland, and Harrogate have also put on standby to deal with COVID-19 patients or those recovering from the virus, Professor Steve Powis, NHS England’s medical director, announced at a press briefing on Monday.

Staff at the temporary hospitals, set up during the first wave of the pandemic, have been asked to be ready to receive virus patients as well as provide "elective and diagnostic services" for non-virus-related conditions.

There are now more people hospitalised with the virus than there were before the UK went into lockdown in March, Prof Powis said. However, he added that hospitals were in a better place than the start of the pandemic, having learned lessons from the first wave.

The north of England continues to be one of the worst-hit areas, with 40 per cent of the country's coronavirus cases recorded in the north-west.

Dr Jane Eddleston, who is Greater Manchester's medical lead, said 30 per cent of the area's hospital beds were now occupied by people infected with the virus.

The devolved government in Scotland would also bring into force its own tiered framework later this month, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Monday.

"At a strategic level, we will be looking to align as closely as possible with the other UK nations. I think it is important and makes sense to try to do that," she said at a press briefing.

"Though I would stress, operational decisions about which tiers might apply in which part of our nations will be for each of us to take at a devolved level."