Covid: Five unanswered questions about the new alert system


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New restrictions on daily life are coming into force in parts of England deemed to be at the highest risk of coronavirus outbreaks.

They include curbs on meeting friends and family and going to the pub and are part of the government’s new three-tier alert system.

Councils in England will be placed on “medium”, “high” or “very high” alert – with different levels of restrictions.

But questions remain over how these are decided and how councils can exit them.

Who goes in the highest tier and why?

Some areas with very high coronavirus rates are not currently on very high alert, while Liverpool is.

In the most recent week, Manchester had the second highest rates in England, placing it ahead of all but one area in the Liverpool City Region, but it is only high alert.

Similarly, Newcastle upon Tyne, Nottingham, Leeds and Sheffield currently rank higher in case rates than much of Liverpool but aren’t in the same tier as it.

  • How will the three-tier lockdown system work?

We asked the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to explain this. It indicated that the reasons include:

  • Number and increase of coronavirus cases
  • The positivity rate (or the percentage of tests that come back positive)
  • Pressures on the NHS
  • Which age groups are being infected

The six local authorities that make up the Liverpool City Region collectively have very high case rates. Meanwhile, the areas that make up Greater Manchester do rank highly, but just a little bit below those of the Liverpool City Region.

And in recent weeks, this case rate has increased quicker in Liverpool than Manchester.

Up-to-date hospital data is not available at a local level.

However, throughout September, the number of beds occupied with confirmed coronavirus patients in the major hospitals in the Liverpool City Region rose quicker than in Greater Manchester. This data, however, only goes up to the beginning of October.

Localised data doesn’t tell us who is catching the virus.

However, looking at highly localised case rates in England, the two worst “hotspots” (out of 7,200 areas in the country) were the University of Nottingham and Nottingham Trent University.

If students are driving up rates in some local authorities in a controlled setting such as a university campus, it might explain why a very high alert has not been introduced, as this age group is not considered high risk.

And if there is a hotspot in a local authority with an older population – as is being suggested in the case of Liverpool – this could lead public health officials to take stronger precautions.

How do councils get out of the highest tier?

This hasn’t been laid out.

The government says it will review very high risk areas every four weeks, but has not explained what would be deemed as suitable progress. It’s likely it will look at some of the factors mentioned above.

It’s worth pointing out that some areas which have previously gone in to local lockdowns have seen them loosened once progress was made, including Luton, Leicester and Oadby and Wigston.

  • It’s not clear whether local lockdowns work

What role are local mayors playing?

The nine directly-elected English mayors, six of whom are in the North and the Midlands, have no formal control over public health rules.

However, when asked about his power to put Greater Manchester, which is currently on high alert, into very high alert restrictions, Mayor Andy Burnham told the BBC: “if we were to ask the government for it, we would get it.”

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The Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham

Likewise, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a Downing Street press conference yesterday that the extra restrictions in Merseyside had “been agreed with” the local mayor.

This was disputed by the local metropolitan mayor Steve Rotheram who said they had been “dictated to us”.

It is not clear whether a mayor would have the power to resist being put into one of the tiers.

In the areas with the most severe local restrictions, the prime minister suggested that “the government will set a baseline” and then “work with local government leaders on the additional measures which should be taken”.

Why don’t restaurants and pubs serving food have to close?

On 21 September, the government’s scientific advisers called for the immediate temporary closure of all bars, restaurants and cafes. They noted that going to them was associated with ”increased risk” and that outbreaks had been linked to these venues.

But hospitality venues in almost all parts of England have been allowed to stay open, subject to a 10pm curfew and other rules.

Even in places facing the tightest restrictions, restaurants can remain open. Pubs and bars can do the same if they serve “substantial meals”, while alcohol can only be served alongside food.

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PAUL ELLIS

We asked the government why such venues were exempt.

It said that although they were considered “higher risk environments than other indoor settings… by limiting the length of time customers spend in these venues, we are making them safer and reducing the risk of transmission”.

It’s a different story in central Scotland where most licensed premises – including pubs, bars and restaurants – have closed for at least two weeks as part of a ”circuit breaker” attempt to reduce viral transmission.

  • When and how are pubs allowed to open?

Why is UK travel restricted but not some foreign travel?

People should avoid travelling in and out of areas under the highest alert level, other than for reasons like work or education, the government says.

It also advises residents under very high alert not to stay overnight in other areas.

But no extra restrictions on foreign travel from the affected areas have been applied.

At present, the government in England does not advise against non-essential journeys to countries on its ”travel corridor” list.

So to fly to one of these destinations from Liverpool Airport – which is under the highest alert level – would not be going against government advice, but to go on holiday in the rest of the UK would.

We asked the government for the rationale behind this decision, but this has not yet been provided.

Reporting by Eleanor Lawrie, Ben Butcher and Oliver Barnes

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