A new three-tier “traffic light” system for local lockdown rules is being discussed by ministers and could be announced as early as this week, it has emerged.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock held talks with England’s regional mayors on Monday, with the “constructive” conversation understood to have included consideration of how to improve the system for imposing localised COVID-19 restrictions.
The government is said to have privately acknowledged that current rules are too confusing and have caused fatigue amongst the public, with an agreement that the measures have to be clearer and more consistent.
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Mr Hancock on Monday ruled out a “simplistic threshold” for local infection rates above which action would be taken, telling MPs that an outbreak might be confined to a university halls of residence or a workplace and not in the wider community.
He promised to bring forward a “more simplified approach” to local action, with ministers “working through” proposals.
“It is critical that our rules are clear at local level so that the public can be certain of what they need to do to suppress this virus,” he told the House of Commons.
“I will update the House in due course on what action the government are taking, so that we can have more consistent approaches to levels of local action, working with our colleagues in local government.”
The health secretary also pledged to “continue to strengthen the local engagement with the national system” and, while he had discussed the plans with the Welsh government, it would be up to devolved administrations whether the new system would apply across the UK.
Earlier on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not confirm the reports of a new three-tier system, but said: “One of the difficulties in fighting the pandemic is you keep having to adjust the strokes you play, the shots you play, depending on where the virus is and the effect it’s having in different localities.”
According to the Guardian, leaked government documents revealed level three – the most serious – of the proposed new system would include the closure of hospitality and leisure business, a ban on socialising outside of households in any setting, restrictions on overnight stays away from home and no organised non-professional sports or other communal activities.
However, the newspaper said that schools were not mentioned in the draft document, which was reported to state that alert level three would be “triggered in geographical areas or nationally when alert level two measures have not contained the spread of the virus, or where there has been a significant rise in transmission”.
Restrictions under alert level two were said to include a ban on people meeting others outside of their household in private dwellings or gardens, apart from their support bubble, or in pubs, restaurants or other settings.
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Alert level one contained the national restrictions currently in place across England, the newspaper added.
A government spokesman said: “We are seeing coronavirus cases rise at a rapid rate across the country and, given how serious this virus is, it is vital everyone plays their part by following the rule of six, washing their hands, practising social distancing and wearing a mask in enclosed spaces.
“As we have shown, we are prepared to take action decisively when it is necessary, and it is of course right to look how we make sure everyone understands and complies with the restrictions that will keep us all safe.”
Analysis – Worries in Whitehall that new system could cause unnecessary economic harm
By Sam Coates, deputy political editor
The traffic light system has not yet been announced amid worries in some government departments that it will cause unnecessary economic harm.
There is concern in parts of Whitehall that the simplified “traffic light” system might result in too many shops being shut down too quickly when areas move from “yellow” to “red”.
Officials have warned that making it too easy to shut down non-essential retail will cause considerable damage to the economy, and that this should only happen “very far down into the red zone”.
Shutting non-essential retail was in the “red” category of some leaked drafts of the traffic light system.
But some ministers argue that coronavirus transmission is not being caused by open shops but by mixing households and people who aren’t obeying the rules.
Downing Street may never publish the criteria behind changing ratings from green to yellow to red, or the specific consequences of a change in category, potentially removing some of the justification for the scheme.
One Whitehall source said: “It’s very important we don’t create a system that binds our hands”.
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