The UK’s coronavirus threat level was today dramatically reduced from four to three – as Boris Johnson hinted at an imminent shift on the two-metre rule.
After weeks in which the alert was maintained despite the PM starting to ease lockdown, the Joint Biosecurity Centre has concluded that transmission is no longer ‘high or rising exponentially’.
The move was approved by the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and it was hailed by Health Secretary Matt Hancock as a ‘big moment’ that showed the ‘government’s plan is working’.
The reduction appears to pave the way for relaxing draconian social distancing curbs that are strangling the economy. Tories have been demanding the two-metre rule is loosened immediately, warning that schools and the hospitality sector cannot function while it remains.
Asked on a visit to a primary in Hemel Hempstead whether the restriction will be eased, Mr Johnson said: ‘Watch this space.’ He said it was ‘absolutely’ his intention to get all pupils back full-time by September.
Figures out today showed UK debt is now bigger than the whole economy for the first time in 57 years, as GDP plunges and millions of people face unemployment. But there was brighter news as retail sales rebounded from their April low.
Mr Johnson faced a backlash at the end of last month when he announced tweaks to lockdown, before it emerged that the alert had not been changed from level four – which according to the government’s own definition requires ‘current social distancing measures and restrictions’ to stay in place.
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, was rumoured to have stood in the way of the move, although there is also thought to have been resistance from his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In a joint statement today they said: ‘The Joint Biosecurity Centre has recommended that the COVID-19 alert level should move from Level 4 (A COVID-19 epidemic is in general circulation; transmission is high or rising exponentially) to Level 3 (A COVID-19 epidemic is in general circulation).
After weeks in which the alert was maintained despite Boris Johnson (pictured visiting a primary school in Hemel Hempstead today) starting to ease lockdown, the Joint Biosecurity Centre has concluded that transmission is no longer ‘high or rising exponentially’
The Joint Biosecurity Centre has recommended today that the Covid-19 alert level be reduced
Figures today showed retail sales have bounced back somewhat from their April low – although they are still down dramatically on previous levels
‘The CMOs for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have reviewed the evidence and agree with this recommendation to move to Level 3 across the UK.
‘There has been a steady decrease in cases we have seen in all four nations, and this continues. It does not mean that the pandemic is over. The virus is still in general circulation, and localised outbreaks are likely to occur.
‘We have made progress against the virus thanks to the efforts of the public and we need the public to continue to follow the guidelines carefully to ensure this progress continues.’
Speaking to Sky News during his visit today, Mr Johnson said ‘watch this space’ when asked whether social distancing restrictions could be cut to help schools return in September.
He said: ‘Of course, on the social distancing measures, as I’ve said, ”watch this space”.
‘We will be putting in further changes as the science allows.
‘I think that’s what the public also wants to see, they want to see us working with the reality.’
The premier said the UK was moving from a world where blanket restrictions were needed to ‘one where we are able to do more localised responses’.
Mr Johnson said it was ‘absolutely’ his intention that children of all ages should be able to return to school by the autumn on a five-day-a-week basis.
‘Let me be very clear – I want a world in which, as far as possible, provided we can make classrooms safe and I think we can, I want every child, every pupil, every student, back in September.
‘I’m sure we can get it done.’
He added: ‘We have to start thinking of a world in which we are less apprehensive about this disease.
‘Yes it has been a horrible shock for the country and for the world, and I think the British people have worked incredibly hard to drive it down.
‘But we are starting to make some real progress with test and trace, with treatments for the disease, and I hope, as we go forward into the autumn, people will be much, much more confident.’
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies last week confirmed the UK’s R rate was between 0.7 and 0.9 – although in some areas it might still be slightly higher. Anything below 1 means the prevalence of the virus is shrinking.
Mr Hancock said the lowering of the Covid-19 alert level was a ‘big moment’ for the UK, and showed the ‘Government’s plan is working’.
He said: ‘The UK moving to a lower alert level is a big moment for the country, and a real testament to the British people’s determination to beat this virus.
‘The Government’s plan is working. Infection rates are rapidly falling, we have protected the NHS and, thanks to the hard work of millions in our health and social care services, we are getting the country back on her feet.’
However, the Government is still facing doubts over its contact tracing system – which will be essential to stop the virus flaring up again and plunging the country into another devastating lockdown.
Mr Hancock was yesterday forced into an embarrassing U-turn over the NHS tracing app, admitting it had not worked and will be abandoned.
Instead, the government will follow countries such as Germany and focus on the version built by tech giants Apple and Google.
The NHS software, originally promised for mid-May, was unable to spot 25 per cent of nearby Android users and a staggering 96 per cent of iPhones in a trial on the Isle of Wight.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock (pictured left yesterday) said the lowering of the Covid-19 alert level is a ‘big moment’ for the UK, and showed the ‘Government’s plan is working’. Chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty (right in Downing Street today) signed off on the change
Research for MailOnline by Redfield & Wilton Strategies found eight in 10 people have yet to visit a non-essential shop since they were allowed to open on Monday
Meanwhile, the Apple and Google technology can spot 99 per cent of close contacts using any type of smartphone — but Mr Hancock said it cannot reliably tell how far away they are.
At the Downing Street briefing last night the Cabinet minister appeared to point the finger at Apple, saying: ‘Our app won’t work because Apple won’t change their system’.
But an Apple source told The Times that it had not been informed of the announcement or consulted on the plan to work together.
‘We don’t know what they mean by this hybrid model. They haven’t spoken to us about it,’ the source said.
On the idea that its version was less accurate at measuring distance than the government’s NHSX model, the source said: ‘The app has been downloaded by six million in 24 hours in Germany, the Italians have had it going since Monday, the Dutch government and Irish government have it, and there has been no issue about proximity detection.’
MailOnline understands Apple was aware of the government’s concerns about the accuracy of the model, but the company pointed out that Germany has concluded it is ‘better than relying on people’s memories’.
In a round of interviews this morning, schools minister Nick Gibb was unable to confirm whether a contract had been signed between the Government and Google and Apple to develop the contact-tracing app.
Asked if a deal to develop the app had been completed with the tech giants, the school standards minister told Sky News: ‘Well, that’s a matter for (Health Secretary Matt Hancock).
‘He’s working with Google and Apple, I don’t know the details of the contracts that they have.’
He added: ‘What I do know is that we are working with Google and Apple to iron out these problems with the system to make it robust and accurate in how it tracks and traces.’
The easing of lockdown measures in England at the beginning of June caused concern as the Covid-19 alert level remained at four – which the Government previously said would mean restrictions remaining in place.
There was then confusion over whether the JBC was up and running, and what role it would play in setting the alert level.
The Covid Alert Levels system was announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his televised address to the nation on May 10.
Public sector debt was fractionally below two trillion pounds at the end of last month – equivalent to 100.9 per cent of GDP
The government was forced to borrow £55.2billion in May, according to the ONS. That was nine time the figure for May last year, and the highest since records began in 1993
He said he was establishing the JBC to run the alert system, which is similar to that used to establish the terrorist threat. It has five tiers from level one to five based on the spread of Covid-19 through the country.
At level five, transmission is high or rising and there is a risk healthcare services will be overwhelmed. Level one means coronavirus is no longer known to be in the UK.
Level three is when the epidemic is in general circulation and gradual easing of restrictions can take place, while level two is when the number of cases and transmission is low and ‘no or minimal’ restrictions are required.
Alongside Prof Whitty, Dr Gregor Smith for Scotland, Dr Chris Jones for Wales and Dr Michael McBride for Northern Ireland take the decision on lowering the level.
Mr Johnson will hope the reduction could counter some of the coronavirus fears that appear to be holding Britons back from heeding pleas to get back to shops and save the economy.
Research for MailOnline found eight in 10 people have yet to visit a non-essential shop since they were allowed to open on Monday.
And two-thirds of them said they had no intention of doing so this month, regardless of the appeals from the PM and Mr Sunak to help prop up businesses.
Meanwhile, the Redfield & Wilton Strategies survey identified strong support for the two-metre rule staying in force – despite warnings from the hospitality industry that millions of jobs could go unless the restrictions are eased.
Some 57 per cent said the social distancing limit should be enforced in pubs if they reopen as scheduled on July 4, compared to 29 per cent who want it loosened.