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People are out socialising in Liverpool city centre. Photo: AP

Under fire, Boris Johnson to unveil new coronavirus measures to stem spread in UK

  • Northern England has been particularly hard hit by a new surge in coronavirus cases that has forced local lockdowns
  • Johnson is reluctant to repeat a national lockdown that would further hurt a struggling economy

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was 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 was to 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 were 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 travelling into or out of local hotspots, will be subject to a review every four weeks, according to ITV. While infection rates in London were lower than some parts of the country, Mayor Sadiq Khan warned last week new restrictions for the capital were inevitable.

The prime minister planned to unveil the latest interventions in Parliament, before appearing in a televised Downing Street press conference alongside Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty.

The planned announcement comes after a renewed spike in virus cases in the UK, 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.

2,000 students at UK universities test positive, hundreds ordered into isolation

The virus has already killed more than 42,000 people in Britain, and health officials were 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 was set to come as record cases across Europe prompt renewed restrictions on a lockdown-weary public. Italy’s government was reviewing additional measures, France introduced tighter curbs in some of its cities, while the Czech government was also set to decide further regulations.

A coronavirus information sign in Manchester city centre. Photo: DPA

Two major studies last week highlighted how the virus has surged in the UK. The Office for National Statistics said the infection rate almost doubled in the week through October 1, and Imperial College London estimates there were about 45,000 new infections every day in the period between September 18 and October 5.

With rates of infection varying across the country, a localised 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 10pm curfew for the hospitality industry.

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Johnson’s approach to stopping the virus has come under fire since the pandemic began. Critics say the UK 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.

Additional reporting by Reuters

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: England faces more restrictions after surge in infections