Boris Johnson is considering new lockdown measures in England should there be a second wave of coronavirus infections.
Plans are being assessed after a rise in Covid-19 cases forced the prime minister to slow the lockdown easing on Friday, with planned relaxations for the leisure and beauty sectors delayed.
Johnson held a “war game” session with the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on Wednesday to run through possible options for averting another nationwide lockdown that could stall any potential economic recovery.
According to the Sunday Times, measures under consideration include asking the elderly to shield once again and lockdown-like conditions for London should there be a second wave.
Under the proposals, a greater number of people would be asked to take part in the shielding programme, based on their age or particular risk factors that have been identified since March, said the Telegraph.
It could even see those aged between 50 and 70 given “personalised risk ratings”, in a move that would add to the 2.2 million who were deemed most vulnerable and asked to shield themselves from society during the spring peak.
Shielding advice was only lifted on Saturday for those in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and remains in place until 16 August for those shielding in Wales.
Other ideas mooted should the R number escalate in the capital include restricting travel beyond the M25 and putting a stop to stays at other people’s houses – similar to policies in local lockdowns imposed in Leicester and parts of the north-west of England in recent days.
R, or the ‘effective reproduction number’, is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread. It’s the average number of people on to whom one infected person will pass the virus. For an R of anything above 1, an epidemic will grow exponentially. Anything below 1 and an outbreak will fizzle out – eventually.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the estimated R for coronavirus was between 2 and 3 – higher than the value for seasonal flu, but lower than for measles. That means each person would pass it on to between two and three people on average, before either recovering or dying, and each of those people would pass it on to a further two to three others, causing the total number of cases to snowball over time.
The reproduction number is not fixed, though. It depends on the biology of the virus; people’s behaviour, such as social distancing; and a population’s immunity. A country may see regional variations in its R number, depending on local factors like population density and transport patterns.
Hannah Devlin Science correspondent
Downing Street sources distanced themselves from the detail in the reports, calling them “speculative”.
The mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, said people in his area “on the whole” had been brilliant “and I reject efforts to blame some for breaking lockdown rules”.
Writing in the Sunday Mirror, Burnham called on the Government to ensure people in low-paid, insecure jobs are financially supported if they have to self-isolate due to coronavirus.
He wrote: “We shouldn’t spend taxpayers’ money on subsidising meals out but not support the low-paid to take time off work to protect their health.”
Behavioural experts have speculated that ministers might have to order the closure of pubs, which were permitted to start serving again on 4 July, if schools are to reopen fully in September.
Prof Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said earlier a “trade-off” could be required if the prime minister’s pledge is to be met.
His comments followed remarks by Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, that the country was “near the limit” for opening up society following the coronavirus lockdown.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was forced to deny that it had abandoned its pledge to regularly test care home residents through the summer following a leaked memo from Prof Jane Cummings, the Government’s adult social care testing director.
The government has come in for criticism for failing to do more to prevent Covid-19 infections from reaching care homes during the initial spring peak.
Cummings wrote to local authority leaders to inform them that “previously advised timelines for rolling out regular testing in care homes” were being altered because of “unexpected delays”.
Regular testing of residents and staff was meant to have started on 6 July but will now be pushed back until 7 September for older people and those with dementia, PA Media reported.
A department spokeswoman confirmed there were issues with “asymptomatic retesting”.
The problems relate to a combination of factors, including a restraint on the ability to build testing kits, already announced issues with Randox swab kits, overall lab capacity, and greater than anticipated return rate of care home test kits.
The DHSC spokeswoman said: “It is completely wrong to suggest care homes were deliberately deprived of testing resources, and any care home resident or member of staff with symptoms can immediately access a free test.
“We continue to issue at least 50,000 tests a day to care homes across the country and prioritise tests for higher-risk outbreak areas.
“A combination of factors have meant that a more limited number of testing kits, predominantly used in care homes, are currently available for asymptomatic retesting and we are working round the clock with providers to restore capacity.”