London Covid Case Rates Now the Highest in England, PHE Says

London is on course to be placed in the toughest tier of coronavirus restrictions next week after new data revealed the U.K. capital has the highest rate of cases in England.

Lawmakers were told in a government briefing that Covid-19 rates in the city are rising and compare badly with other regions currently in Tier 3, the top level of curbs, according to two people familiar with the meeting.

The U.K. capital had a rate of 191.8 cases per 100,000 population in the week ending Dec. 6, Public Health England said Thursday. That compared to 158.4 in the West Midlands region, where case rates have fallen the most.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he’s “particularly concerned” about the number of cases in London, as well as areas of Kent and Essex bordering the capital. “Cases are rising and in many areas are already high,” he said late Thursday in a televised press conference, adding that the fastest increase is among school children aged 11 to 18.

Mayor Sadiq Khan urged people to heed social-distancing rules to stop London being put into Tier 3 when the measures are reviewed on Dec. 16. That would see all pubs, bars, restaurants and indoor entertainment venues closed.

The latest data was set out to members of Parliament in a Zoom call on Thursday afternoon by Health Minister Helen Whately and Public Health England’s London director, Kevin Fenton. Districts in the east of the city have the highest case rates, while wealthier areas in the west and center have much lower rates.

That has led some members of Parliament to call for different tiers to be applied across the city. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last month the “virus is no respecter of borough boundaries” and it makes sense to place the whole of London in the same tier, since it is so easy to move around on its transport network.

Hancock said the worst-hit boroughs of London, as well as Essex and Kent in southeast England, would receive mass community testing to try to bring down infection rates. He said that while he won’t “pre-empt” the government’s decision when it reviews the tiers on Dec. 16, the number of cases is “worrying” in those areas.

Moving into Tier 3 would be a huge blow to the capital’s hospitality and entertainment industry so soon after England’s four-week lockdown ended on Dec. 2. Under the current Tier 2 rules in force in London, pubs and restaurants are allowed to open, as long as they serve alcohol only with substantial meals. Theaters, concert halls, bowling alleys and museums can also operate.

“Nobody wants the capital to face Tier 3 restrictions, but with cases rising we face a tipping point,” Khan said in an emailed statement. “That’s why it’s important that the government is providing this much-needed testing support and it is essential that Londoners continue to follow the rules to reduce the spread of the virus.”

The tier review comes ahead of a relaxation of the rules over Christmas — between Dec. 23 and 27 — when people will be free to move across the U.K. and three households permitted to join together in a bubble to celebrate. Medics have warned this could mean a resurgence in the virus in January and February, meaning some regions could be stuck in Tier 3 for weeks.

“If people go too far, the Christmas period is going to be a period of risk everywhere,” England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said at the press conference. “We need to actually keep a close eye on that.”

The U.K. became the first country in the Western world to start rolling out a vaccine this week, but ministers have warned that life will not start getting back to normal until spring 2021 at the earliest.

The PHE data suggest coronavirus cases have plateaued at a national level, with case rates remaining similar to the previous week across all age groups. Case rates rose in London, as well as the southeast and east of England, while all other regions saw a decrease.

“Everyone’s sacrifices over the past few weeks means cases have reduced significantly in many parts of the country,” PHE Medical Director Yvonne Doyle said in a statement. “However, the decline has started to stall and, overall, infection rates remain high so we must all stay vigilant.”

Doyle said people should consider reducing their contacts ahead of Christmas to “reduce the risk to you and your loved ones.”

Pubs and restaurants in London’s financial center were warned Thursday they will be fined if they allow households to mix inside — a breach of Tier 2 rules. The City of London Corporation, the Square Mile’s governing body, said they risk penalties of up to 4,000 pounds ($5,300) if they allow people to meet indoors for Christmas parties.

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