UK News Local lockdowns could pop up across the nation within 24 hours
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Local lockdowns could be imposed within 24 hours of a coronavirus outbreak thanks to real-time data from the NHS app, it was claimed today.
Currently it takes weeks for the Government to assess Covid-19 statistics and decide whether a town or city should face tougher restrictions.
Ministers analyse testing figures, infection rates, deaths, hospitalisations and the 'R' rate - the average number of people a Covid-19 patient passes it to - to come to their decision.
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But this is hampered by the time it takes for swabs to be sent off to labs, come back and be filtered into the centralised testing programme, and how long it takes to see a sustained up-tick in hospital admissions and deaths. It can take several weeks for patients to become seriously ill.
A Government source said health bosses will start monitoring the NHS app for local clusters of people with Covid-19-like symptoms, and won't be afraid to pull the plug on regional freedoms if a large proportion of people fall ill.
App users alert it when they are suffering symptoms of the virus - a fever, continuous cough or loss of taste and smell - which immediately tells them to get a test and self-isolate.
If lots of people in one area start suffering symptoms then local health authorities are alerted to the cluster, allowing them to take rapid action to suppress the virus.
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LOCAL LOCKDOWNS AREN'T WORKING, DATA SHOWS
Economically-crippling and socially-constraining local lockdowns are failing to curb coronavirus outbreaks, analysis shows.
More than 17million Britons in 48 towns, cities and boroughs are currently living with even more limited freedoms than the rest of the country.
Many have been barred from meeting friends or family indoors and university students in the locked-down areas are practically confined to their halls of residence.
Residents in these places have been told the rules are essential to suppress the virus, but data shows that Luton is the only area in England which has successfully managed to drive down cases far enough for the draconian rules to be lifted.
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However, there are fears the Bedfordshire town could be slapped with restrictions once again after cases rose by a third in the last week, from 26 per 100,000 to 35.5 per 100,000.
Stockport and Wigan also managed to break free from the shackles of local lockdowns but had measures reimposed on Friday after infections rebounded. The other 46 regions in lockdown are all recording rises in infections, according to the latest Government data.
Bolton is still Britain's Covid-19 hotspot after suffering more than 200 cases per 100,000 in the last week. Cases have more than tripled in the last three weeks, despite the Greater Manchester town going into a local lockdown earlier this month.
A Government source told: 'Meetings have been taking place over the weekend, and we have been put on notice that new measures could come into force at any time.'
The NHS app, the latest weapon in the UK's armoury for battling coronavirus, had been downloaded 12.4million times as of yesterday, the Department of Health said.
The alerts it will provide could mean ministers can bin their weekly lockdown reviews in favour of 'fluid' updates.
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It may also mean bans on household mixing and going to the pub could be implemented much faster, to curb the spread, and for a shorter period, as a rise in infections is observed much faster.
The NHS app is not monitoring a person's location, but uses the postcode inputted when it was downloaded to pinpoint the location of an infection should a user send an alert.
It collects very little personal information, and gives users no way to enter their name, email address or telephone number.
The app was launched with much fanfare last week, but it has arrived four months behind schedule after problems getting it to work on both Apple and Android systems.
It was beset with further problems over the weekend when it emerged those who had received positive test results from NHS hospitals or Public Health England laboratories were unable to put them into the app, and therefore alert those they had been in close contact with.
The Department of Health rushed to fix the issue once it was identified, as it meant 70,000 test results received a day could not be put into the device.
Health experts have called for as many people to download the app as possible to make it more effective, but said that even a 15 per cent uptake would help control the virus.
During a press conference launching the app Professor Christophe Fraser, from the University of Oxford, said even the low uptake would have a 'significant effect'.
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'This is about the benefit to the individual in your local network,' he said.
'The answer is you need to download the app for it to have an effect for you and on your personal social network, and you need to encourage your friends and family to do the same.'
Further lockdown restrictions will come into force in the North East tonight as cases continue to spiral, making it illegal for residents to visit each other's households or go for a drink with someone from another home.
The tightened measures will affect Northumberland, Newcastle, North and South Tyneside, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham, and are enforceable by law and could be accompanied by a fine.
The UK's testing system is currently failing to turn the majority of swabs around in 24 hours, with some forced to wait a week before they get their results, meaning it is harder to spot local outbreaks.
Only 28 per cent of all swabs were turned around in 24 hours in the week up to 16 September, down one in three on last week, official data shows.
Just over five per cent of tests took more than three days to complete, as the Government struggles to increase lab capacity to process swabs.
Matt Hancock has introduced a prioritisation list to help ensure tests are completed quickly, with NHS staff and care home residents and workers pushed to the front of the queue.
The R rate for the UK currently sits between 1.2 and 1.5, well above Boris Johnson's target of keeping it below one.
The high levels mean infections could be increasing at a rate of between four and eight per cent every day.
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The Department of Health says online: 'These estimates represent the transmission of Covid-19 over the past few weeks due to the time delay between someone being infected, having symptoms and needing healthcare.'
HOW DOES ENGLAND'S CONTACT TRACING APP WORK?
Bluetooth technology will keep a record of which phones spend 15 minutes within 2metres (6'7') of one another and then alert people if they have been near someone who later tests positive for Covid-19.
People's phones are only recognised by the system if they are running the app themselves - it cannot detect others.
The contacts it keeps track of are all anonymous and phones exchange digital 'tokens' with every app-using phone within Bluetooth range.
If one person develops symptoms of the coronavirus or tests positive, they will be able to enter this information into the app.
The phone will then send out a notification to all the devices they have exchanged tokens with during the infection window, to make people aware they may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Each phone keeps an individual log of the Bluetooth profiles someone has come close to. These will then be linked anonymously to people's NHS apps and alerts can be pushed through that even after the person is out of bluetooth range.
People can delete their data from this app at any time.
Users will also have an 'isolation companion' which has countdown timer if someone has to self-isolate, and will be able to 'check in' to places such as pubs and restaurants using QR codes.
They will also be shown what the risk level is in their local area based on the first half of their postcode, with places being categorised as low, medium or high risk.
Will the app tell me what to do?
The app can only react to data that people put into it, and it will only ever offer guidance. If a user reports that they have symptoms of coronavirus - a new continuous cough, a fever, or a changed sense of smell or taste, they will be urged to self-isolate for 10 days from the start of the symptoms and to get tested.
If they test positive for Covid-19 at any time, they should report this to the app. The app then sends out an anonymous alert to everyone with whom that person has been within 2m (6'7') of for 15 minutes or more since they started feeling ill.
That person may then be asked to self-isolate or to get tested if they feel unwell.
How well does it work?
The app is far from perfect, with the Department of Health has admitted that around half of people who are warned they have been near an infected person will actually not have been within the 2m for 15 minutes danger window.
And three out of 10 people who were put at risk - 31 per cent - won't receive a notification at all. In trials it had a 69 per cent accuracy rate at detecting people who had been at risk, and it was 55 per cent accurate at detecting people who had not.
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