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Covid alert level downgraded as PM prepares to announce easing of restrictions

A woman walks past street art that reads "Spread the love not the virus" in Hull, Yorkshire, during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. Photo by Danny Lawson/PA Media

By Ella Pickover, PA Health Correspondent

The Covid-19 alert level in the UK has been downgraded after a “consistent” fall in cases, hospital admissions and deaths.

The four chief medical officers of the UK have said the threat level should be lowered from “level 4” to “level 3”, thanks to the success of the vaccination programme and social distancing restrictions.

This means that the epidemic is in general circulation, but transmission of the virus is no longer deemed to be high or rising exponentially.

It comes as experts said that the nation is in a “strong position” to press ahead with the easing of coronavirus restrictions.

The Prime Minister is expected to announce that people in England will be able to take a step closer to normality from next week as more indoor mixing and hugging loved ones will be permitted once more.

Boris Johnson will hold a press conference in Downing Street later on Monday to announce the next steps in England’s road map out of lockdown.

In a statement, the chief medical officers of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, said: “Following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in the light of the most recent data, the UK chief medical officers and NHS England national medical director agree that the UK alert level should move from level 4 to level 3.

“Thanks to the efforts of the UK public in social distancing and the impact we are starting to see from the vaccination programme, case numbers, deaths and Covid hospital pressures have fallen consistently. However, Covid is still circulating with people catching and spreading the virus every day so we all need to continue to be vigilant. This remains a major pandemic globally.

“It is very important that we all continue to follow the guidance closely and everyone gets both doses of the vaccine when they are offered it.

It is expected that Mr Johnson will confirm that England can press ahead with the next phase out of lockdown from May 17 which allows more freedoms both in and outdoors.

Professor Sir John Bell said the nation was in a “very strong position” to move forward with the easing of restrictions which will enable people to “try and get back to normal”.

Oxford University’s regius professor of medicine told Good Morning Britain that data from vaccination programmes from the UK, Israel and the US shows a “rather rapid fall-off” in cases of disease, hospital admissions and deaths after rising numbers of people were given their first dose of vaccine.

“It’s a really very striking fall in all those things.

“I do think that we’re in a very strong position to go forward now with fewer restrictions and try and get back to normal.”

Dr Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick, said that figures for hospital admissions and new infections are similar to low levels seen last August.

But the member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) urged people to “act responsibly” as restrictions were lifted.

He told BBC Breakfast: “I think it’s actually very important for our mental health and wellbeing that we can hug our loved ones, but to me the key message is, if and when this comes in, we need to remember that the pandemic hasn’t gone away.

“We are still a few steps away from normality, so it’s really great that we can hug our loved ones, but what we need to remember is we need to be a little bit careful.”

He said that the easing of restrictions could see the R number rise above 1, but added: “The key thing for me is what we want to avoid is hospital admissions going up and people dying going up.

“And if we can keep those out of the low levels they are then hopefully this resumption of hugging can be done safely and we can proceed again to the June 21 relaxation.”

Mental health minister Nadine Dorries repeated the call for caution but said that the road map was “on course”.

She told Sky News: “I think it’s what most people have missed, that intimate contact with family and friends, and entertaining, having people in your own house, meeting outdoors.

“It does look as though the road map is on course, but we do so with caution, ensuring that the data is in place and looking forward to – and with excitement to – the fact that we will be able to hug our family and friends soon.

“So, caution balanced with optimism, I think, is the way forward.”

Asked what “cautious cuddling” means, she told BBC Breakfast with a laugh: “I don’t think you can cautiously cuddle.”

But Dr David Nabarro, special envoy on Covid-19 for the World Health Organisation, said he would urge people to maintain social distancing and keep using face masks.

He told Sky News: “On the one hand we’ve got a dangerous virus, on the other hand we must get on with life because it just can’t go on with the restrictions that people have had up till now.

“Finding that middle path, how to live with this virus’s constant threat, is key.

“If I were able to talk to everybody personally over the coming weeks, I would say: You must restart life and everybody wants you to do that, but please be really careful, maintain that physical distance of between one metre and two metres, especially indoors, and don’t forget to wear your face masks because that really can give extra protection.

“It’s these simple things, but all done together that will really make the difference as to whether or not future spikes are huge or future spikes are small and easily contained.”

Ms Dorries told BBC Breakfast: “We do have variants of concern on one hand, on the other hand we have the capacity to lateral flow twice test everybody in the UK, we have the capacity to surge test in localised areas where we see those variants of concern and where we know problems may be rising.”

Ms Dorries said the UK is “still in the tail end of the pandemic” while “globally the world is still in the grips of this pandemic”.

It is expected that the Prime Minister will announce from May 17, most social contact rules outdoors will be lifted, although gatherings of more than 30 will remain illegal.

Indoors, the rule of six or two households will apply.

Indoor hospitality, entertainment venues such as cinemas and soft play areas, the rest of the accommodation sector, and indoor adult group sports and exercise classes are expected to reopen.

Other measures include allowing up to 30 people to attend weddings, receptions and wakes, as well as funerals.

The Government has said the latest data suggests easing restrictions from May 17 is unlikely to risk a resurgence in infections.

It comes after latest figures show a third of UK adults are now fully vaccinated against Covid-19, with a total of 17,669,379 people having received both jabs – the equivalent of 33.5% of all people aged 18 and over.

Overall more than 53 million vaccine doses have been administered in the UK.

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