The UK introduced a COVID alert level system in May 2020 to reflect the degree of threat to the country from the virus.
The system involves a scale of one to five, with five being the highest threat, and determines how much pressure the NHS is under and how strict the levels of social distancing need to be.
The Joint Biosecurity Centre is constantly looking at the COVID threat level and recommends whether it should be raised or lowered.
It is then endorsed by the chief medical officers of all four nations before it can be changed.
They also look at the number of cases and the R number – the average number of people each infected person passes the virus on to.
The system is designed to mirror the UK’s independent terror alert system.
The COVID alert level has now been raised from 3 to 4 – the second highest, with the chief medical officers saying: “Transmission of COVID-19 is already high in the community, mainly still driven by Delta, but the emergence of Omicron adds additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and healthcare services.
“Early evidence shows that Omicron is spreading much faster than Delta and that vaccine protection against symptomatic disease from Omicron is reduced.”
It added: “Data on severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalisations from Omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly.”
Here is what each alert level means:
Level 5 – The highest on the scale, this indicates there is a “material risk” of the NHS being overwhelmed.
Reaching this level would involve tighter social distancing measures.
Level 4 – This means the COVID-19 epidemic “is in general circulation” and that “transmission is high or rising exponentially”.
Level 3 – While this level also suggests the epidemic is “in general circulation”, it omits the statement “transmission is high or rising exponentially”.
It would mean a gradual reduction in social distancing measures and restrictions.
Level 2 – To shift to this level, the government guidance says the virus would be present in the UK, but that the number of cases and transmission is low.
It says this would then allow “no or minimal social distancing measures”, but with enhanced “testing, tracing, monitoring and screening”.
This level has not been reached since the system was introduced.
Level 1 – The level which the government eventually hopes to reach, this would indicate “COVID-19 is not known to be present in the UK”.
The guidance suggests the only action required at this stage would be “routine international monitoring”.
Quarantine and social distancing measures will be relaxed or tightened depending on where the UK is on the scale.
This is how the levels have changed since they were introduced in May 2020:
May 2020 – Level 4
19 June 2020 – Level 3
21 September 2020 – Level 4
4 January 2021 – Level 5
25 February 2021 – Level 4
10 May 2021 – Level 3
12 December 2021 – Level 4
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