Coronavirus: How does the Covid-19 alert level system work?

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The UK's coronavirus alert level is going down to four. It means the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed in the coming weeks has fallen.

The country has been at level five - the highest - since early January.

Why has the alert level gone down?

The level has been changed because the number of people in hospital is falling and "the threat of the NHS and other health services being overwhelmed within 21 days has receded".

The decision was announced in statement by the UK's chief medical officers and NHS England's national medical director.

Level four means coronavirus transmission remains "high," and health services are still "under significant pressure with a high number of patients in hospital".

"Transmission rates, hospital pressures and deaths are still very high," the statement added.

A change in alert system does not automatically mean restrictions can ease, but it helps to inform government decisions on lockdown rules.

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How are the levels set?

Risk levels are measured by a five-level, colour-coded alert system.

The government unveiled the system in May 2020.

There are five levels:

  • Level five (red) - a "material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed"
  • Level four - a high or rising level of transmission
  • Level three - the virus is in general circulation
  • Level two - the number of cases and transmission are low
  • Level one (green) - Covid-19 is no longer present in the UK

What determines the level?

  • Covid-19's reproduction (R) number, a scientific measure of how fast the virus is spreading
  • The number of confirmed coronavirus cases at any one time

Who sets the level?

The Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) - set up by the government in spring last year - has the task of recommending what the alert level should be.

JBC scientists identify changes in infection rates using testing, environmental and workplace data.

The JBC also has an "insight team" which monitors local spikes of Covid-19 and advises health officials and local authorities.

Their recommendations are then reviewed and agreed by the chief medical officers of the four UK nations.

Does a change of level mean that restrictions are eased or tightened?

Not automatically. The Covid-19 alert level system is separate and independent from any government decisions on easing or tightening restrictions.

The government in England has recently set out a timetable for easing lockdown, which is reliant on "four tests" are being met. This includes infection rates not risking a surge in hospital admissions