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COVID-19: What is the UK’s COVID Alert System, and Will it Prove Effective?

Back in March 2020, life seemed so innocent. As we emerged from Winter, most of us were looking forward to getting out and enjoying the Spring and Summer weather. Then COVID-19 came along and, as we all know, knocked those plans for six, and then some. On 23rd March, as the number of people affected by the virus span out of control, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson addressed the nation and uttered those immortal words, “from this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home”. While we were all locked-down for seven weeks, at least the instructions were uniform across the country; we all had to stay at home unless it was unavoidable not to. In recent days, however, a new tiered lockdown system for England was unveiled by the government, and, it is fair to say, it has proved controversial. In this article, we will outline how the new local COVID alert system works, and discuss whether it is likely to prove effective

What are the New COVID Alert Levels?

The new COVID Alert Level system was announced by the Prime Minister on 12th October 2020. The Press Release which accompanied the announcement stated, “The Prime Minister has today set out how the government will further simplify and standardise local rules by introducing a three-tiered system of local COVID Alert Levels in England. Addressing MPs before hosting a Downing Street press conference, he confirmed the levels will be set at medium, high, and very high. He set out how this new approach will be simpler and standardised”.

Firstly, it is important to remember that the new COVID Alert Level system only applies to England; Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland have their own local restrictions.

If you live in England, to find out which level your area is in, the government have provided a postcode search tool. All areas in England are in one of the three COVID Alert Levels, hence the lowest level is medium.

Medium alert level

If you are in the medium level, the expectations are that you adhere to the national measures in place, including the ‘Rule of Six’ and the requirement to close hospitality businesses at 10pm. In addition, the following rules now apply:

  • All businesses and venues can continue to operate in a ‘COVID-19 Secure manner’, except those that remain closed in law, such as nightclubs.
  • Certain businesses selling food or drink on their premises are required to close between 10pm and 5am.
  • Businesses and venues selling food for consumption off the premises can continue to do so after 10pm as long as this is through a delivery service, click-and-collect or drive-thru.
  • Schools, universities and places of worship remain open
  • Weddings and funerals can go ahead with restrictions on the number of attendees
  • Organised indoor sport and exercise classes can continue to take place, provided the Rule of Six is followed
  • People must not meet in groups larger than 6, indoors or outdoors (this is the ‘Rule of Six’).

Broadly speaking, compared to the first lockdown the UK experienced from March, the medium alert level is relatively unrestrictive with the exception of the impact on those businesses who are not able to trade or have had their trade limited.

More details on the medium alert level can be found on the Government website.

High alert level

In areas of concern, where the virus is spreading more rapidly, the high alert level adds further restrictions over the medium level:

  • People must not meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor setting, whether at home or in a public place.
  • People must not meet in a group of more than six outside, including in a garden or other space.
  • People should aim to reduce the number of journeys they make where possible. If they need to travel, they should walk or cycle where possible, or to plan ahead and avoid busy times and routes on public transport.

At the high alert level, the expectation is that people can only meet indoors if they are in the same household or ‘support bubble’, and that journeys should be limited.

Very high alert level

This is reserved for areas with the largest outbreak of COVID-19. Additional restrictions include:

  • Pubs and bars must close, and can only remain open where they operate as if they were a restaurant – which means serving substantial meals, like a main lunchtime or evening meal. They may only serve alcohol as part of such a meal.
  • Wedding receptions are not allowed
  • People must not meet with anybody outside their household or support bubble in any indoor or outdoor setting, whether at home or in a public space. The Rule of Six applies in open public spaces like parks and beaches.
  • People should try to avoid travelling outside the ‘Very High’ area they are in, or entering a ‘Very High’ area, other than for things like work, education, accessing youth services, to meet caring responsibilities or if they are in transit.
  • People should avoid staying overnight in another part of the UK if they are resident in a ‘Very High’ area, or avoid staying overnight in a ‘Very High’ area if they are resident elsewhere.

Are the New Alert Levels Likely to be Effective?

It is notable that even at the very high alert, the restrictions in place are still much less severe than during the national lockdown earlier this year. Businesses apart from pubs and bars are still able to trade, and people can still meet others within the same support bubble if they adhere to the Rule of Six. Schools will also be able to stay open.

The language used (e.g. the use of the words, “people should try”) may also lead some to believe that some personal discretion is available. The other potential concern with implementing a local system is that there may be confusion as to which rules apply, especially close to a regional border. And furthermore, businesses may simply seek to push the boundaries of the rules to continue trading (e.g. by challenging what is meant by a ‘substantial meal’). For these reasons, it has been widely suggested that even despite the potential financial impact it would cause, a nationwide lockdown (or ‘circuit breaker’) may be needed. As of now, however, the government has not bowed to pressure on this matter.

As Manchester enters the very high alert level, too much resistance from Mayor Andy Burnham, it can only be hoped that the rapidly rising case numbers can be brought under control and that no further measures are needed. As of today (20th October 2020), with over 21,331 new cases and 241 deaths linked to the virus, there is little sign of this happening yet. Ultimately, the effectiveness of the system will only be known with time as the long term trend emerges.

Related article

How Coronavirus Has Affected UK Immigration

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