THE Covid threat level has today moved up to its highest level for the first time ever leaving the NHS at risk of collapsing.
Under the red level five alert, there is a “material risk” of hospitals being overwhelmed and stricter social distancing measures in place.
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It comes as it was announced the Prime Minister Boris Johnson will tonight address the nation, as he outlines how to curb the spread of coronavirus infections.
The Joint Biosecurity Centre – which includes the UK’s four Chief Medical Officers – has moved up the Covid threat, government sources have confirmed.
Level five is introduced when transmission is high or rising which could ultimately cripple healthcare services.
It is determined by the UK’s R number and the number of confirmed Covid cases at any one time.
The system is different to the Covid tiers currently in place across the UK.
It comes as:
What are the five levels?
Level 1 – Low: The lowest level of alert would mean that the virus is no longer known to be present in the UK, therefore no restrictions would be needed.
Level 2 – Moderate: There is a low level of transmission and the NHS is operating normally, allowing no or minimal social distancing measures.
Level 3 – Substantial: The virus is in general circulation, but at a level allowing the gradual lifting of some restrictions and social distancing measures.
Level 4 – Severe: The pandemic is in general circulation, with transmission high or rising exponentially but without the NHS being overwhelmed.
Level 5 – Critical: The virus is spreading fast and could overwhelm the NHS, therefore strict measures, such as a lockdown, would be needed.
The five levels were introduced as part of the government’s “road map” for navigating the UK out of the pandemic.
The UK moved down to Level three from four on June 19 as part of a gradual easing of lockdown measures.
But it rose again in September as infections continued to rise.
This is the first time Level five has been introduced and comes as a mutant strain of the disease rampages across the UK.
Experts today said the rise in infections couldn’t be solely put down to the new variant, but highlighted that the NHS is currently “at breaking point”.
Dr Tom Wingfield, Senior Clinical Lecturer and Honorary Consultant Physician at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine said the spread of the virus had been “damaging before the new variants”.
He said: “It is misplaced to cite the new variant as the sole – or even predominant – rise in cases, hospitalisations, and deaths from Covid-19 until we have more detailed evidence.
“Sadly, the NHS is currently – and yet again – at breaking point due to Covid-19 on top of heavy winter pressures.
“It is clear that, in order to avoid prolonged crisis and an overwhelmed NHS, we need additional measures to those currently in place, which might include a return to national lockdown, despite the harsh social and economic harms that also entails.”
The UK has seen the highest ever daily case toll of 58,784 today as new infections pass the 50,000 mark for the seventh day in a row.
Cases have remained high for a week now as hospitals struggle to cope with patients numbers – with 407 new deaths today.
Thousands of people are becoming infected each day after mingling at Christmas and the spread of the mutated strain.
A total of 75,431 people have now died since the start of the pandemic, with 2,713,563 cases reported.
In order to deal with the influx in cases the London Nightingale Hospital is preparing to open its doors once more.
Other Nightingales across England are also being “readied” for use if needed – after pictures showed the facilities lying empty and stripped bare.
It comes as Covid hospital admissions soared beyond the peak of the first wave in April and cases have been over 50,000 for the past six days.
A spokesperson for the NHS said the reopening date is under daily review, adding: “We are working hard to prepare NHS Nightingale Hospital London to take patients if necessary.
“It will provide rehabilitation for people who are recovering after an emergency hospital stay and who are not Covid positive, freeing up other beds in hospital for Covid patients.”
This afternoon Dr Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director for Public Health England (PHE) urged people to follow hygiene and social distancing measures highlighted in the government’s “hands, face, space” campaign.
Commenting on today’s figures she said: “The continuous rise in cases and deaths should be a bitter warning for us all. We must not forget the basics – the lives of our friends and family depend on it.
“Keep your distance from others, wash your hands and wear a mask. This virus will transmit wherever you let your guard down.”
A No10 spokesman said: ‘The spread of the new variant of Covid-19 has led to rapidly escalating case numbers across the country.
“The Prime Minister is clear that further steps must now be taken to arrest this rise and to protect the NHS and save lives.
“He will set those out this evening.”
Parliament will also be recalled today to sit on Wednesday – meaning there will likely be a vote on the measures, and they are expected to be national rather than regional.
However, the new measures could be imposed as early as tonight with MPs given a retrospective say.
One expert said interventions already in place need to be applied “more strictly”.
Dr Jeff Barrett, director of the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute said the new variant of the virus is 50 per cent more transmissible but that it’s the combination of what the virus is doing and what we’re doing that determines how fast it spreads.
He said: “With the new variant, the situation changes more quickly as restrictions are relaxed and tightened, and there is less room for error in controlling the spread.
“We don’t have any evidence, however, that the new variant can fundamentally evade masks, social distancing, or the other interventions – we just need to apply them more strictly.”