British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is introducing a regional COVID-19 alert system in the hope of slowing a surge in infections that health officials worry is spinning out of control.
Britain has quickly become the European epicentre for the second wave of the pandemic, with the number of confirmed cases quadrupling in the past four weeks and the daily figure reaching 13,972 on Monday. Britain reported more infections than any other European country last week, according to the World Health Organization, and there are currently more people in hospital with COVID-19 than when the country went into a national lockdown on March 23.
Mr. Johnson already toughened some physical-distancing rules last month, including ordering all pubs and restaurants to close at 10 p.m. But those measures have been insufficient to halt the rising number of infections particularly in Liverpool, Manchester and other parts of northern England.
On Monday Mr. Johnson announced a three-tiered system of local restrictions – medium, high and very high – which will take effect on Wednesday and cover all of England. Everyone living in medium-alert areas will have to follow the existing national measures which include limiting public gatherings to six people or fewer. High-alert regions will face additional restrictions, including a ban on mixing households, while pubs, casinos and recreation centres will have to close in areas under very high alert. Three temporary hospitals in northern England, which were built last spring when the pandemic began but rarely used, have also been put on alert to reopen.
So far only the Liverpool area, home to around 1.5 million people, has been been put in the very-high category but much of the northwest and northeast of England has been designated a high-alert area. Scotland is expected to adopt similar restrictions along with Northern Ireland. Wales has already imposed tough lockdown measures and travel bans in several regions.
“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,” Mr. Johnson told the House of Commons. “The weeks and months ahead will continue to be difficult and will test the mettle of this country.”
Britain is following the lead of France, Spain and other European nations in introducing local lockdowns. France has developed a complex system of regional alerts and roughly two-thirds of the country is under some form of red alert. All bars have been closed in Paris, which is under the maximum alert. Spain has imposed tough restrictions in Madrid and some cities in Germany have begun closing bars and restaurants at 11 p.m.
Putting the new alert system in place hasn’t been easy for Mr. Johnson and he spent much of the weekend negotiating with regional leaders and members of Parliament who did not want their areas put under high or very high alerts. But the talks did little to ease the frustration.
Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson blasted the government for imposing “lockdown by diktat” and he criticized Mr. Johnson for not doing enough to support businesses that will be damaged by the restrictions. “As well as protecting lives and doing things to tackle the virus, we also need to protect livelihoods, so we argued really strongly for a stronger financial package. Unfortunately, that wasn’t listened to.” The city’s chamber of commerce said local businesses were “bewildered, frustrated and angry.”
Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands area that includes prominent cities such as Birmingham, expressed disappointment that his region had been moved from medium alert to high alert. “This is not something regional leaders supported, nor what I believed would be happening following extensive conversations over recent days,” he said. “The region was united, cross-party, in supporting the existing restrictions.”
Mr. Johnson said the measures would be reviewed every four weeks and he ruled out another national lockdown. Schools, universities and shops will remain open and Mr. Johnson said the government will compensate businesses by paying up to two-thirds of the wages of workers furloughed because of the new restrictions.
While most experts welcomed the three-alert system, some said the measures were confusing and didn’t go far enough. “The Prime Minister has elected to keep the majority of the country with an intervention that is clearly not working,” said David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter. “At the very-high-risk tier, there is already confusion with mixed messages about whether all of the interventions suggested apply universally, or some just to Liverpool. At this time of national crisis we need clarity. Our Prime Minister has again failed to deliver this.”
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