Coronavirus: Lockdown easing rules will not yet vary between regions despite different R rates

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Business secretary Alok Sharma told Sunday's media briefing there will be no regional approach to lockdown easing. (PA Images via Getty Images)
Business secretary Alok Sharma told Sunday's media briefing there will be no regional approach to lockdown easing. (PA Images via Getty Images)

Coronavirus lockdown easing rules will not yet vary by region despite their different R infection rates, the government says.

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The crucial reproduction number, which indicates the transmission of COVID-19, is at different levels across the UK.

But despite the infection rate being higher in areas such as the East Midlands, the North East and the South West of England, there are no plans for specific lockdown rules tailored to individual regions.

At the government’s daily coronavirus media briefing on Sunday, business secretary Alok Sharma said it will continue with its national lockdown approach.

He said it was “too soon” to introduce a phased lifting of the lockdown based on data available for each region.

Professor Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, told the briefing: "There will be variations between different parts of the country that occurs naturally in epidemics.

"We see that, for instance, in flu season each winter. What's important going forward is increasingly we will be able to measure R direct."

The reproduction number is the average number of people who will catch a disease from a single infected person – and keeping it below 1.0 is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published its first direct testing of a random sample of the population, finding that one in 400 people outside hospitals and care homes had coronavirus.

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In the next few weeks, Prof Powis said, “we will have much better information of the directly measured R rate rather than R rate that is derived from models and other observations.”

He said: "That I think will give us a clearer picture of exactly how the infection is progressing in different parts of the country.”

According to modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the East Midlands has an infection rate of between 0.7 and 1.1, while London has with between 0.5 and 0.8.

In the South West, the rate is between 0.6 and 1.2, while Northern Ireland and Scotland both have an R number of 1.0.

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The figures are given as a range because giving a precise figure is not scientifically possible, while there is a lag behind real-time cases of about 10 days – the latest data was taken before Boris Johnson eased some lockdown restrictions in England last week.

There has been criticism of the government’s national approach from politicians across the regions.

Last week, Gateshead Council’s Labour leader Martin Gannon urged people in the North East, where the R rate is between 0.7 and 1.0, to ignore the government’s advice and stay at home.

England’s new “stay alert” advice puts it at odds with the lockdowns in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

At the weekend, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called on the government to publish the R value per region in England to help communities ease lockdown restrictions.

He told BBC Breakfast: "People do not have the R information at the moment. They can get it, but it's not formally published by the government.

"There's a very different picture in the North, particularly in the North East, where the R is the highest, so I can understand concerns.”

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "We believe the R rate is higher in those areas, in those regions, so therefore we want the government to publish the science behind it and provide the support."

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