Civil servants are reportedly drawing up plans for an extra-tough fourth tier of Covid restrictions in England in case the current system fails to make a dent in the coming weeks.
The measures could see restaurants and non-essential retailers such as clothes shops forced to close in areas where tier 3 rules have not brought the virus under control, according to inews.
Whitehall sources told the newspaper a decision could be made by mid-November, when there is enough data to gauge the effectiveness of the three-tier system.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly ruled out another nationwide lockdown ‘from John O’Groats to Land’s End’ to avoid pushing more economic misery and mental health pressures onto people in less-affected areas.
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Other options under consideration include ramping up existing tier 3 rules to ‘tier three-plus’, or ‘circuit breaker’ total lockdowns in coronavirus hotspots.
Local circuit breakers would look similar to the lockdown Leicester faced over summer, the sources added, shutting down most businesses and banning travel outside the region rather than simply advising against it.
While the virus’ spread appears to be slowing, there are concerns it may not be enough to save the NHS from being overloaded.
Both the UK’s R rate, or the average number of secondary infections produced by a single infected person, and the rate of growth of cases in the past week fell from the previous week.
However Professor Neil Ferguson, the former government science adviser whose modelling heavily influenced the March lockdown, has suggested this is due to falling cases among young people, and that infections are still rising in other age groups.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: ‘Unfortunately, in every other age group case numbers continue to rise at about the same rate they were.
‘There are little hints of slowing, for instance in the North East of England, but we are not seeing the sort of slowing that we really need to to get on top of this.’
The R rate dropped from between 1.3 and 1.5 to between 1.2 and 1.4, according to latest estimates, but government officials have suggested to local leaders in tier 3 regions it effectively needs to fall below 1 – and that even that might not be enough.
Labour councillor Paul Brant, Cabinet member for public health and social care in Liverpool, told inews: ‘Even if it does go down below 1, actual case levels have shot up now rapidly.
‘We know from the first wave that infection levels can rise very rapidly and they come down quite slowly, so we could well find ourselves in a situation where R has drifted down but absolute numbers were not.
‘If the numbers don’t significantly improve, no doubt we will be revisiting exactly the same questions about whether further restrictions are going to be necessary to drive the levels down. That is the argument for a short sharp shock.’
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