London dodges toughest virus rules as England lockdown ends
A pedestrian walks past posters advising customers to wear a face mask or covering due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as she walk past a temporarily closed-down shop on an almost deserted Oxford Street in London. AFP
London will escape the tightest restrictions once England's national coronavirus lockdown ends next week, the government said Thursday, but major cities including Manchester and Birmingham face at least two more weeks of tough rules.
England will return to a regional tiered system when the national regulations end on December 2, with those areas suffering the worst case rates entering the highest Tier 3.
Most of the country, including the capital, will enter into Tier 2, under which restaurants and many leisure facilities will be allowed to reopen.
Limited public attendance at performances and sporting events will also be allowed.
But prolonged closures will continue in major cities including Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield and Bristol.
"I understand the impact these measures will have but they are necessary," Health Secretary Matt Hancock told parliament on Thursday, adding that the tiers would be reviewed in two weeks.
He was flanked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who emerged from two weeks of self-isolation on Thursday after coming into contact with an MP who tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Tier 3 restrictions, which were in place before the latest measures, are not as stringent as national lockdown rules but will compound difficulties for already struggling businesses.
Restaurants and leisure facilities will have to remain shut, and residents are being urged not to travel to other parts of the country.
People from different households may not mix indoors in either Tier 2 or 3.
Hancock said the national measures that came into force on November 5 had "successfully turned the curve" of infection rates.
Cases were down 19 percent and hospital admissions down seven percent nationally over the past week.
"It is vital we safeguard the gains we have made," he said, noting that 16,570 people are still in hospital in England with Covid-19.
The northwest city of Liverpool, where a pilot mass rapid testing programme has been launched, was in Tier 3 before the latest lockdown.
But it will move into Tier 2 after cases fell by two thirds.
Hancock attributed the fall to the testing scheme, which the government hopes to roll out nationwide.
The government announced earlier this week that restrictions would be eased for five days around Christmas, but urged vigilance.
"Hope is on the horizon but we still have further to go," said Hancock. "The end is in sight, we mustn't give up now."
More than 56,000 people testing positive for the virus have died in the outbreak in Britain, the worst toll in Europe.