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A surge of Covid-19 in London has been confirmed – putting the capital city on track for curbs on socialising and nights out in around a fortnight.
The number of cases per 100,000 over seven days has shot up from 18.8 to around 25, the Evening Standard can reveal.
The Standard has also seen the official plan drawn up to co-ordinate London’s response to the increase in cases that health chiefs are now braced for. Called “London Epidemic Response Escalation Framework”, it sets out a programme of intensified measures each time a “trigger point” is crossed.
The first trigger points will be officially crossed when today’s data is published, and if the plan is followed exactly, health chiefs would be expected to hold a city-wide reassessment of how the disease is spreading and make preparation for extra testing and measures to slow transmission in the community.
In at least a dozen boroughs, the figure is around 30 or higher, according to analysis by the Standard.
East London is seeing the worst spike, with figures of between 35 and 40 in Redbridge and Newham, and around 30 in Barking, Havering, Hackney and Tower Hamlets. In West London, Hounslow has the highest figure, at around 35.
If the London rate keeps rising, the plan outlines more severe restrictions on the public, including “reintroduce epidemic controls”, “mandatory masks”, “restrict religious gatherings” and “restrict social contacts”.
If it goes over 50 cases per 100,000, the plan says a “local lockdown” should be considered.
Official sources stressed that the framework was not an exact blueprint but a tool to ensure co-ordination between the Department for Health and Social Care, Public Health England, NHS Test & Trace, the Mayor of London and leaders of the 32 boroughs and the City of London.
It was signed off at a summit held in London last Friday attended by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Baroness Dido Harding, Mayor Sadiq Khan plus health service and local authority leaders.
However a row has broken out over a decision to remove around a fifth of the laboratory capacity previously allocated to London and give to hotspots in other regions, including the north west and the north east which introduced local curfews following spikes.
One testing centre that previously completed 250 tests a day is now down to just 50 because there is nowhere to process swabs despite a big rise in public demand for tests. Yesterday the Standard revealed the scale of the shortage when reporters attempted to obtain test appointments using residential postcodes in every borough – and were told each time that no slots were available.
Peter John, the chair of London Councils and leader of Southwark, said the lost capacity should be returned to London while there was still time to slow the surge.
“If we are going to keep people safe and get our economy going again, testing and tracing needs to be working,” he said. “We need that capacity back in London.”
Baroness Harding defended the decision to reallocate lab capacity when questioned by MPs at the Science select committee.
She said: “Yesterday, we tested just under 10,000 people in London, we’re averaging circa 10,000 a day, and London’s testing [is] slightly above the national average.
“As a result, over the last few weeks London has seen the absolute number of tests allocated come down, precisely because London has a lower prevalence than Bolton and other areas in the NW and NE.”
The trigger points in the framework are as follows:
Over 20 cases per 100,000 over seven days triggers a new regional assessment of the epidemic evolution and agreement of extra measures to slow down the spread.
Between 20 and 25 changes the epidemic phase from “watching brief” to “national concern”, with increased access to mobile testing units, targeted campaigns and outreach to the community.
Between 25 and 50, London goes into “enhanced support” in which health chiefs may “reintroduce epidemic controls” including mandatory use of masks in more places, “restrict social contacts” and “restrict religious gatherings”. In addition, there would be information campaigns and support for vulnerable communities as part of a more intensive drive to slow down infections. Borough leaders would at this point “consider use of local authority powers” which include being able to shut down particular pubs and venues linked with outbreaks, or they could ask for a curfew to close the night economy at 10pm
Above 50 the document states: “Consider local lockdown.”