Coronavirus England: Lockdown tiers may be ‘unjustified’

Fitness & Health:

Just 9,854 new infections were recorded in England yesterday, almost half of the number of diagnoses last Tuesday (18,626) 

Local lockdown tiers announced tomorrow may already be outdated and ‘unjustified’ when England’s national shutdown lapses next week because Covid infections are plummeting across the country, according to one of Britain’s top infectious disease experts.

Just 9,854 new infections were recorded in England yesterday, almost half of the number of diagnoses last Tuesday (18,626). If infections halve again next week, the country will be in the same situation it was prior to the second wave in September, when there were minimal curbs in place.

Professor Carl Heneghan, an epidemiologist and expert in evidence-based medicine at the University of Oxford, said ‘if the trend continues it will be hard to justify tougher tiered restrictions’ when the national lockdown ends on December 2.


He underlined the importance of Number 10 being transparent about the criteria it’s using to justify Tier Two or Tier Three curbs and urged ministers to lay out exactly what needs to change for high-risk areas to be downgraded amid warnings virtually no-where in England will go into a Tier One.

Professor Heneghan told MailOnline: ‘By the time we get to December 2 we will be in very different position than we are now, therefore we need to be much more flexible and reactive, and set out clear criteria.

‘[There is] no point in saying to people ‘this is where you are now [in terms of Covid] and you’ll be in this tier next week’ — we should be explaining to people the two important criteria that should decide which areas go into which tiers – symptomatic cases and hospital rates.

‘For instance, say Kent is announced to be in Tier Three [tomorrow] and that it has 50 per cent of hospital beds occupied by Covid patients, you could tell people they have to adjust that to 30 per cent to come out of Tier Three. That’s objective criteria.’

His comments came as rebel Tory MPs accused the Government of using ‘finger in the air’ criteria to make the crucial decisions that will have a massive impact on businesses and wider health.

The Cabinet are meeting today to sign off on Mr Johnson’s local lockdown Tiers for England. Ministers are expected to base the decisions on up-to-date case data being presented today, with the announcement on the Tiers due to be made tomorrow.

It comes as Government guidance revealed Britons will be asked to avoid socialising for two weeks either side of Christmas as a damage limitation measure to allow the five-day break from lockdown.

The official guidance says: ‘In the two weeks that follow your last meeting with your Christmas bubble, you should reduce your contact with people you do not live with as much as possible. Children can continue to go to school.’

Meanwhile SAGE scientist Professor Andrew Hayward, director of the University College London Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, has warned the three-home Christmas bubbles are a ‘recipe for regret’ that will ‘throw fuel on the Covid fire’ and spark a deadly third wave.

The infection profile of the UK in mid-September

The infection profile of the UK in mid-November

These charts show how the infection profile has changed across the UK between mid September (left) and mid-November

Covid-19 cases have fallen across most of the North of England since lockdown was imposed, but they are rising in a corner of the South East. The percentage change is based on comparing data from the week ending November 15 to the week ending November 8. It comes as the Government prepares to unveil its tier system

Covid-19 cases have fallen across most of the North of England since lockdown was imposed, but they are rising in a corner of the South East. The percentage change is based on comparing data from the week ending November 15 to the week ending November 8. It comes as the Government prepares to unveil its tier system

The onerous tiered system will be in place across England from December 3 until the end of March, the Prime Minister said

The onerous tiered system will be in place across England from December 3 until the end of March, the Prime Minister said

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of Oxford University's Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, claimed that cases aren't rising and that higher rates have been skewed by testing being ramped up

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, claimed that cases aren’t rising and that higher rates have been skewed by testing being ramped up


Boris Johnson’s original three-tiered approach would’ve brought the second wave under control if all areas were moved out of Tier 1, a study suggests.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia reviewed local data from all of England’s 343 local authorities and said the national lockdown was unnecessary.

They found Tier 3 measures were working in all areas under the highest bracket and Tier 2 was effective in most areas – though Tier 1 was largely redundant.

The scientists said the localised approach would’ve brought the second epidemic under control with a few simple tweaks – scrapping the bottom tier and being quicker at moving areas into Tier 3 from Tier 2.  

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They hope their research will be used to make the new, tougher tiered system work better when the country comes out of lockdown on December 2.

Writing in the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal, lead researcher Professor Paul Hunter said: ‘In our view, the main problem was not actually the tiers, but that local authorities were not being put in the most appropriate tier quickly enough.

‘The three-tier system would likely have been sufficient to control the epidemic if all authorities had been moved out of Tier 1 into Tier 2, and if those authorities where the epidemic was still increasing in Tier 2 had been moved into Tier 3 more swiftly.

‘If authorities are not moved up a tier until the number of rising cases had already gotten out of control, the horse had already bolted.’ 

But mutinous MPs are warning that areas with low infection rates must not be subject to tougher rules because of nearby urban hotspots – while others complain that the metrics being used to allocate Tiers are vague, rather than specific number thresholds.

Ministers are expected to base the decisions on up-to-date case data being presented today, with the announcement on the Tiers due to be made tomorrow. 

Pubs and restaurants in high-risk areas will only be able to offer takeaway and delivery services, while cinemas, theatres, bowling alleys and hotels will close. 

Residents in Tier Two will have to follow rules that were previously in place in Tier Three – meaning pubs will only be able to serve alcohol with a ‘substantial meal’. 

The Joint Biosecurity Centre – a Government agency – will review the Covid situation in areas every two weeks and sign off on proposals to upgrade or downgrade places – though the final decision remains with Boris Johnson.  

Professor Heneghan has proposed creating a dedicated Government website page where residents can track live case and hospital rate and see clearly what adjustments they need to make to their behaviour to come out of the strict curbs.

He added: ‘Liverpool [formerly the UK’s Covid hotspot] has seen a tremendous drop in cases – I think people are much better at adjusting their behaviour than we consider. If people understand risk they adjust appropriately.’ 

But he pointed out that ministers have repeatedly told Brits we need to learn to live with the virus because it can never be stomped out fully, therefore ‘we need to be realistic’ with the criteria for coming out of Tier Three.

He said: ‘Some numbers were too low to be obtainable before, in August we were told 50 cases per 100,000 placed areas in the red alert bracket. That’s just was unobtainable. We’ve got to be realistic.

‘You can’t just look at PCR positive results because a lot of these people are past infectiousness. We need to use data on symptomatic people because we know they are spreaders. 

‘There is good data from the RCGP [Royal College of GPs] and King’s College London’s app [the Covid Symptom Tracker] that is more useful in terms of determining impact on community transmission.’

It comes as the PM faces growing complaints about the ‘finger in the air’ criteria being used to make the crucial decisions for after the blanket squeeze lapses on December 2.

Conservative MPs are threatening to oppose the new system in a vote next week if it is national ‘lockdown by another name’. Ministers are expected to base the decisions on up-to-date case data being presented today, with the announcement on the Tiers due to be made tomorrow.

Labour has refused to say it will vote in favour of the rules next week, but looks unlikely to oppose them outright – meaning they should go through.

But a huge revolt would inflict another damaging blow to Mr Johnson’s authority as he tries to ‘reset’ his government after the meltdown that saw Dominic Cummings ousted. 

Public Health England statistics show infection rates — the number of new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people — shot up by at least 50 per cent in all three areas in the seven-day spell ending November 15. 

The areas most likely to have Tier Three rules imposed are East Sussex, Herefordshire and Milton Keynes, which have suffered the biggest spikes in coronavirus cases in the last week. 

Also in Mr Hancock and Prof Chris Whitty’s sights are Kent, parts of Essex and London.

Meanwhile, the areas that saw the greatest falls in cases were almost all in Tier Three in the North West, adding further evidence that the local lockdown system appears to work.

Warrington, Oldham, Wigan and Blackburn, all of which suffered huge numbers of infections during England’s second wave, saw declines of 30 per cent or more.

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Liverpool and other previous Tier Three areas have been pushing for their status to be downgraded, in recognition of the progress against the virus.

Downing Street declined to comment in detail ahead of tomorrow’s decision, but pointed out that the Prime Minister warned on Monday that ‘many more places will be in higher tiers than was previously the case.’ 

How will government decide what Tiers areas are put into? 

Boris Johnson has promised to base Tier allocation on ‘common sense’, and the government’s ‘Winter Plan’ set out a series of metrics that will be used. They are:

  • Case detection rates in all age groups;
  • Case detection rates in the over 60s;
  • The rate at which cases are rising or falling;
  • Positivity rate (the number of positive cases detected as a percentage of tests taken); and
  • Pressure on the NHS, including current and projected occupancy.

However, there are no specific numerical trigger points, and the document added that there will be ‘some flexibility to weight these indicators against each other as the context demands’. 

‘For example, hospital capacity in a given area will need to be considered in the light of the capacity in neighbouring areas and the feasibility of moving patients,’ the document said. 

‘Case detection rates will need to be weighted against whether the spread of the virus appears to be localised to particular communities.’ 

Number 10 said five key factors would be used: Covid cases across all ages; cases among over-60s; the rate at which cases are rising or falling; the number of positive tests per 100,000 people; and pressures on the local NHS

But it has given no details on how indicators will be used – and economic factors won’t be taken into account.

Yeovil MP Marcus Fysh told MailOnline there should be more precise criteria for deciding what Tiers are applied. ‘There is no assessment. it is all finger in the air… ”that seems a way to do it”,’ Mr Fysh said.

Kent MPs including Tom Tugendhat and former Cabinet minister Greg Clark have written to the PM urging him to set Tiers at borough level rather than across the whole county.

‘Kent is a vast and varied county that showcases the best of our country,’ the letter said. We must allow businesses to prosper and not be held back by restrictions not suitable for their area.’

One rebel source said almost 100 Conservative MPs had raised concerns about the continuing damage to the economy from restrictions that are due to last until April.

Tory chief whip Mark Spencer is said to have been deluged with messages from MPs warning that he cannot count on their vote if their constituency is placed into one of the higher tiers.

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, said he was likely to vote against the measures when they are brought to the Commons early next week.

And he warned that the new restrictions would be ‘extremely damaging’ to firms already struggling to deal with the impact of two lockdowns.

He added: ‘My concern is that huge numbers of businesses particularly, but not exclusively, in the hospitality sector have been losing money under Tier Two already, and there is a very tight limit to how much longer they can go on doing that without seeing even bigger levels of unemployment, and, particularly, youth unemployment coming towards us.’

The number of Tory rebels planning to vote against the tiered system next week is expected to be far greater than the 32 who voted against the national lockdown.

Mr Johnson will speak to the 1922 Committee on Wednesday night in effort to marshal the restive backbenchers, according to The Times.


Tier One will be the default and measures will not be allowed to get more relaxed in any part of England:

  • Rule of six and social distancing apply to gatherings indoors and outdoors;
  • Pubs and restaurants are allowed to open with table service only and an 11pm closing time.

Tier Two:

  • People from separate households cannot meet indoors and the rule of six applies outside;
  • Pubs must close unless operating as restaurants, with alcoholic drinks served alongside meals;

Tier Three will be the toughest level of restrictions and rules have been tightened up to make them stricter than before. All of the Tier Two rules apply as well as the following:

  • Indoor entertainment venues such as cinemas, theatres and bowling alleys must close;
  • Pubs, restaurants and cafes must close except for takeaway;
  • Shops and hairdressers and salons will be allowed to remain open; 
  • Groups of six will be allowed to meet outdoors only; 
  • Crowds at live events will be banned;
  • People should avoid travelling out of, or into, Tier Three areas unless it is unavoidable.
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Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne said: ‘The mood music seems to suggest that everybody is going up one tier – it’s going to be worse than before. We will have gone from lockdown to lockdown by another name.’

Downing Street yesterday acknowledged that the new system of tiers is ‘tougher’ than the one that was in place in October.

The hospitality sector warned that the proposals were so restrictive that many firms would not survive, particularly if they lose their lucrative Christmas trade.

Tier One is the only level where people are able to meet with those from other households indoors. 

In Tier Two, socialising among groups of up to six is allowed, but only outdoors. In the new restrictions, pubs and restaurants will only be allowed to serve alcohol to customers also buying a ‘substantial meal’.

In Tier Three, pubs and restaurants will have to close for everything except takeaways.

Nick Mackenzie, boss of Greene King, Britain’s biggest pub chain, said: ‘My concern is much of the country will be in Tier Two or Three and that will be devastating for the industry.’

And Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin, who runs 875 pubs, said: ‘We will be in an effective lockdown in Tiers Two and Three, and will be unprofitable.’

While Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said: ‘It seems the Government has chosen to inflict unnecessary pain and irreversible damage on our sector without publishing evidence…’

Downing Street yesterday rejected suggestions that the new system would be another form of lockdown, pointing out that shops, gyms and hairdressers would all be able to reopen in all tiers. The PM’s spokesman said ministers had been clear that ‘given the need to suppress the virus, there will be more areas in higher tiers.’

Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday told MPs he was hopeful that the tier system, coupled with mass testing, would avoid the need for a third lockdown.

Mr Hancock said there would be a shift to an emphasis on ‘personal responsibility’ rather than social distancing restrictions after Easter once the vaccine has reached the most vulnerable.

It comes as  Sage scientist Professor Andrew Hayward warned Boris Johnson’s three-home Christmas bubbles are a ‘recipe for regret’ that will ‘throw fuel on the Covid fire’ and spark a deadly third wave.

He claimed the five days of festive freedom will ‘lead to increase transmission’, ‘hospitals being overrun and unnecessary deaths’. 

Three households will be allowed to form ‘Christmas bubbles’ over the festive period after politicians across the UK agreed to ease draconian curbs and give hard-pressed families respite from coronavirus rules.

A four-nation meeting of the Cobra emergency committee yesterday afternoon agreed plans to allow extended families and friends to meet without social distancing within exclusive groups.

The relaxed measures will be in place from Wednesday December 23 to Sunday December 27, paving the way for families in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to meet up.

In England, those already in ‘support bubbles’ with vulnerable or lonely relatives living elsewhere will count as one household under the new rules – extending the size of potential gatherings.

Travel across tiers in England will also be allowed, as will journeys between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But in a blow for the hospitality industry, the Christmas bubbles will only be allowed to meet up in private homes, places of worship and in outdoor public spaces.

Rules for pubs, restaurants and other venues will remain the same under whichever tier they find themselves in at the time.

The Christmas agreement was made between Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and the First Ministers of the devolved governments.

Mr Gove struck an upbeat tone as he said the move will ‘offer hope for families and friends who have made many sacrifices over this difficult year’.

But Boris Johnson and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford were both more cautious, with the PM posting a video on his Twitter saying ‘the virus doesn’t know it’s Christmas and we must all be careful’.

Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon earlier suggested the Christmas respite from coronavirus lockdown would not be exactly the same in Scotland.

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