Boris Johnson is considering imposing a new month-long national lockdown for England next week, in the hope that measures could be eased before Christmas.
It comes as a scientist warns the Government that coronavirus is “running riot” across all age groups.
The BBC, Sky News and The Times are all reporting that the Prime Minister will bow to pressure from scientists to abandon the regional tier strategy in favour of a blanket lockdown covering the entire country.
The decision has reportedly been reached after ministers saw data which showed hospitals in parts of the country would be overwhelmed with Covid patients by December.
When will Boris Johnson make an announcement?
The PM is expected to announce the measures for England in a press conference today (Saturday) at 6.30pm, delayed from the original time of 4pm then 5pm.
He will be joined by England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty and the government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.
This could see everywhere except essential shops and education settings closed for a month.
A new national lockdown could be imposed (Photo by DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)
Mr Johnson has so far resisted pressure to introduce nationwide restrictions, opting instead for a localised tier system, but he is facing fresh calls for action after new data showed the extent of cases across England.
The Office for National Statistics estimated that 568,100 people in households were infected with coronavirus in the week ending October 23, and Government scientific advisers believe it is now too late for a two-week national circuit-breaker to have enough of an effect.
What is the scientific advice?
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), speaking in a personal capacity, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “For the naysayers that don’t believe in a second wave, there is a second wave.
“And, unlike the first wave, where we had a national lockdown which protected huge swathes of society, this outbreak is now running riot across all age groups.”
Fellow Sage scientist Professor John Edmunds said the only way to have a “relatively safe” Christmas is to take “stringent” action now to bring the incidence of the virus “right down”.
He said the current strategy “guarantees high incidence across the country over the winter”, and that, while restrictions do not have to be national, there is a danger that, even in the South West where cases are lower, hospitals will be under pressure within weeks.
“I think the only real way that we have a relatively safe Christmas is to get the incidence right down because otherwise I think Christmas is very difficult for people – nobody wants to have a disrupted Christmas holiday period where you can’t see your family and so on,” he said.
“So I think the only way that that can be safely achieved is to bring the incidence right down, and in order to do that we have to take action now and that action needs to be stringent, unfortunately.”
His comments came after a senior Government scientific adviser said it is “definitely too late to think that the two-week circuit-breaker on it own will sort this out”.
“It would bring it down a bit but it wouldn’t be enough to bring (the R value) right down. A two-week circuit-breaker would have an effect but now almost certainly it would need to go on for longer to have a significant effect.”
The political reaction
Labour has criticised the Government for “dithering”, with shadow business minister Lucy Powell saying: “Its refusal to follow the science means we have missed the half-term holiday when it could have had its most impact.
“It sounds like it is going to have to be longer than it would have had to have been because we are doing it too late.”
The Government’s plan was briefed to several newspapers on Friday evening, sparking criticism from John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents 120,000 officers.
He said such an approach increased pressure on the emergency services, tweeting: “To those briefing selective media on a potential national lockdown please understand the impact this has.
“It creates a media frenzy, causes confusion and ahead of any official announcement encourages some to make the most of their pre-lockdown time. This is not a good mix!”
The proposed restrictions have led to fresh calls for more financial help for affected businesses, on the day the furlough scheme closes and is replaced by the Chancellor’s Job Support Scheme (JSS).
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, said a national lockdown would be “absolutely devastating” for the industry and called for the sector to receive “significant additional help in order to get through this”.
Wales is currently under a “firebreak” lockdown, with leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses closed, and in Scotland the majority of people will be under Level 3 of a new five-tier system from Monday.
In Northern Ireland pubs and restaurants were closed for four weeks starting on October 16 with the exception of takeaways and deliveries. Schools were closed for two weeks.
It remains unclear whether the other three nations will impose similar restrictions to England.