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UK to move to Covid alert level 5 - the highest - amid warnings NHS could be overwhelmed in weeks

The UK’s Covid alert level is to change to level 5 - its highest - amid a warning for the chief medical officers that the NHS cannot cope with a further rise in cases.

It comes ahead of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement to the nation at 8pm on Monday (January 4), at which he is expected to order a national lockdown. Reports have suggested he will order the closure of schools across England, although the government has yet to confirm what will be announced.

Covid-19 alert levels (43817832)
Covid-19 alert levels (43817832)

In a statement, the UK’s four chief medical officers and NHS England medical director said they were recommending the move from level 4 to 5 “following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in the light of the most recent data”.

They said: “Many parts of the health systems in the four nations are already under immense pressure. There are currently very high rates of community transmission, with substantial numbers of COVID patients in hospitals and in intensive care. Cases are rising almost everywhere, in much of the country driven by the new more transmissible variant. We are not confident that the NHS can handle a further sustained rise in cases and without further action there is a material risk of the NHS in several areas being overwhelmed over the next 21 days.

Boris Johnson. Picture: PA (43817841)
Boris Johnson. Picture: PA (43817841)

“Although the NHS is under immense pressure, significant changes have been made so people can still receive life-saving treatment. It is absolutely critical that people still come forward for emergency care. If you require non-urgent medical attention, please contact your GP or call NHS111.”

A further 58,784 cases were announced today, taking the total in the last week to 383,834, up 127,614 or 49.8 per cent, as the new more easily transmissible variant takes hold.

The national infection rate for the week to December 30 has spiralled to 487 per 100,000 people.

The latest case map shows growing area with high levels of infections. Darker areas represent higher infection rates. Picture: PHE (43817793)
The latest case map shows growing area with high levels of infections. Darker areas represent higher infection rates. Picture: PHE (43817793)

In Cambridgeshire, a further 450 cases were a announced today, and the infection rate for the seven days to December 30 was 409.2. However, in Cambridge itself, the rate was 460.7 - above the national average.

A No 10 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.”

Professor John Edmunds, who works on the Government’s coronavirus response as part of the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), warned that “really major additional measures” are needed immediately, with school closures being the “biggest lever” available.

Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 (43817834)
Daily confirmed cases of Covid-19 (43817834)

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has already announced Scotland will go into lockdown for the rest of January, with a legal requirement to stay at home and schools closed to most pupils until February.

The statement on moving to alert Level 5 came from England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, his counterpart in Wales, Dr Frank Atherton, in Scotland, Dr Gregor Smith, and Northern Ireland, Dr Michael McBride, along with the NHS England national medical director Prof Stephen Powis.

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