Explained: the UK’s new ‘traffic light’ system to manage local lockdowns

Downing Street hopes the scheme will help avoid unnecessary economic disruption

UK test and trace NHS
(Image credit: PAUL ELLIS/AFP)

The government is working on plans for a three-tier “traffic light” system to trigger local lockdowns in England and Wales, according to reports.

Metro says that the new scheme “would see local authority areas ranked red, orange or green – depending on the severity of the pandemic locally”. The plan was “signed off by cabinet ministers at a meeting of a key Covid-19 cabinet committee last week” and has been sent to Boris Johnson for approval, The Telegraph reports.

The news comes as the government’s long-awaited contact-tracing app for the two nations finally launched on Thursday. The app uses Apple and Google’s automated contact-tracing technology “to tell people to self-isolate if their phone detects they were near someone later determined to have the virus”, says the BBC.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The app also feature a venue check-in barcode scanner; a postcode-based risk-level checker; a symptoms reporter; the means to order a coronavirus test and receive results; and a countdown timer to keep track of how long to stay in self-isolation.

According to The Daily Mirror, the proposed traffic light system “would work alongside the Test and Trace app”, with people “sent texts when the rules in their towns changed due to any change in the infection rate”.

In addition to providing “a simple and transparent way for people to know what the restrictions are in their local areas”, the traffic lights scheme would “also allow England to avoid another economically damaging lockdown by needlessly shutting down areas in which infection rates are low”, adds The Telegraph.

The paper says that the prime minister “hinted at” the plans when he told the Commons this week that “one of the great advantages” of NHS Test and Trace “is that we now have the ability to see in granular detail where the epidemic is breaking out and exactly which groups are being infected”.

A blueprint of the three-tier system has already been set out by authorities in London. Under the proposals, the capital would be split into areas with fewer than 20 cases per 100,000 (green), 20 to 50 per 100,000 (amber), and more than 50 per 100,000 (red).

In “green” areas, Covid marshals would enforce the nationwide social distancing restrictions, with schools, care homes and businesses monitored to make sure they are Covid-secure.

The “amber” tier would see social contacts and people’ movements restricted further, with testing ramped ups.

And “red” areas would be subject to stricter local lockdowns, although schools would only be closed as a last resort.

If the system were applied to England today, a total of 30 million people in 149 local authorities would be subject to the amber and red tiers.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock is reportedly among the ministers championing the scheme. However, a Whitehall source told The Telegraph that “no decisions have been made”.

A senior government source added: “It still needs to be properly interrogated to see if this will work on a national level.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.