The announcement by the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, that millions of people in England will fall under the harshest lockdown restrictions just days before Christmas shows that the government’s tier two measures have failed to contain Covid-19.
Under the new guidelines, in place from Saturday 19 December, eight areas are moving from tier two to tier three. But only two places – Bristol and North East Somerset – have been moved down from the highest level. Herefordshire will also move from tier two to tier one.
The latest figures, released yesterday, reveal that Covid-19 cases as well as hospitalisations are rising across the UK in advance of the Christmas period when restrictions will be reduced.
Tier two isn’t enough in most places
The gains made during the second national lockdown in England now appear to have been lost.
On Wednesday 16 December, the UK recorded its highest number of Covid-19 cases since 14 November – the sixth worst day so far. A total of 25,161 people tested positive and this does not include any of the 11,000 missing Welsh cases from the last week.
Lags in the data mean the number reported doesn’t entirely reflect the days the tests were taken. However on 5 November, the day the second lockdown began, reported cases numbered 24,141.
The virus is at similar levels now as it was when the second lockdown started.
As part of our new local Covid-19 tracker, the New Statesman has created a Covid-19 severity score, by combining all the metrics that the government is using to decide the new tiers. These include the case rate, the case rate among the elderly, the rate of Covid-19 hospitalisations, and how quickly these are rising or falling.
Since the tier system was reintroduced, most of the growth in Covid-19 severity has happened in tier two areas of the country – especially those in London (before it moved to tier three this week), the east of England and the south east.
In tier three, the virus originally remained broadly steady – though it has started to rise in recent weeks – and it is too early to say whether moving up a tier has affected the severity of the virus in London.
As a response to the failure of the tiers to keep the virus under control, the UK government has upgraded many places to tier three – but even that tier is failing to stop a rise in many areas.
The new classifications show a greater flexibility in how areas are graded, with areas such as Hastings and Rother placed into a higher tier than the nearby West Sussex. This is good news for some places that were previously being categorised based on the Covid-19 severity in neighboring areas.
You can find out the score in your area – as well as the underlying data – using our new local coronavirus tracker, here.
In Wales a rise in cases led the devolved administration to limit Christmas gatherings to just two households – a divergence from the rules for the rest of the UK.
Cases have risen in Scotland, too, albeit less steeply: from 99 cases per 100,000 people in the week ending 4 December, to 111 per 100,000 in the week to 11 December.
Northern Ireland is also experiencing a slow rise in cases, but rates are still far lower than the October peak.
Testing struggles to keep up
In some areas of England, testing is struggling to keep up with the rise in cases. Capacity is behind in London and the south east especially, with almost one in five tests returning a positive result in areas such as Swale, Medway and Havering. According to the World Health Organisation, anything above one in 20 tests returning positive is a sign that the pandemic is out of control.
The averages across England as a whole provide a different picture. Test numbers have continued to rise but have broadly stayed in line with the number of cases – reflected in a stable test positivity rate in the past few weeks.
The proportion of close contacts reached and asked to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace in the week to 9 December was the highest yet (92 per cent).
However, in recent weeks the NHS has changed the way the figures are calculated and reported. People in the same household are now no longer being traced individually – so it is impossible to compare the latest figure to previous weeks.
Tier 2 hasn’t dented worst hospitalisation rises
Hospitalisations for Covid-19 are rising across the country. The curve is particularly steep in London, the south east and the east of England – and it seems the tier two restrictions in these areas have barely made a dent.
On the whole, however, hospitals across England are less busy than they were last year.
Some 89 per cent of beds were occupied in the week ending 13 December, compared to 95 per cent during the same week last year. Both figures are above the 85 per cent target, which is typical in recent years.
However the two years are not directly comparable. Beds and staff have been deployed differently to help manage the virus, and the NHS has said that staff are under increased strain because virus prevention measures mean it takes more resources to treat each patient.
Deaths are not yet increasing to the same degree. This is likely due to the lag between people catching the virus, becoming seriously ill, and dying.
However, it’s clear that the tier two measures have failed to meaningfully control the virus. If this is any guide, we predict that any easing of restrictions over Christmas is a recipe for a prolonged second wave and, sadly, more deaths.