Local coronavirus lockdowns are set to be automatically triggered by a three-tier "traffic light" system, with alerts sent directly to people's mobile phones, The Telegraph can disclose.
The planned new approach divides the country into different areas based on local infection rates, which will dictate the severity of local lockdowns.
It will work alongside the new NHS Test and Trace app, which sees people scanning a special QR code to enter and exit pubs, restaurants and bars. The app will then send a message to the user about lockdown conditions when the coronavirus risk profile changes.
The plan – signed off by Cabinet ministers at a meeting of a key Covid-19 cabinet committee last week – has been sent to Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, for approval.
No final decision has been taken, but ministers are hoping that the scheme, to operate in conjunction with the new restrictions announced this week (watch Mr Johnson detail the measures in the video below), could be in force within weeks.
Ministers are attracted to the three-tier system because it offers a simple and transparent way for people to know what the restrictions are in their local areas.
Residents of Greater Manchester are already grappling with different lockdown rules in Salford, Rochdale, Bury, Trafford, Tameside, Bolton, Oldham, Wigan and Stockport.
The traffic light system, grading areas as red, amber and green, will also allow England to avoid another economically damaging lockdown by needlessly shutting down areas in which infection rates are low.
Mr Johnson hinted at the new scheme (the graphic below shows how it could look across England) when he told the House of Commons on Wednesday 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".
The Government's focus was on continuing "to drive down the 'R' number while keeping businesses open and pupils in school", he said.
"It is an epidemiological fact that transmission of the virus takes place via human contact from person to person," he added. "Test and Trace enables us to isolate the cases of the virus in ever greater detail, which we were not able to do before.
"There would be far more damage to the economy throughout our country if we failed to control the virus now and we were obliged to put in seriously damaging lockdown measures that really affected every business in the country."
The "traffic light" plans could pacify Conservative MPs who have been pushing back against the prospect of a second national lockdown (watch Dominic Raab talk about the possibility in the video below). Ministers have cleared business in the Commons on Monday for a full day's debate of the Government's approach to Covid-19 amid fears of a backbench rebellion over plans to give MPs a lock on future powers.
The traffic light plans for the three-tier system are understood to be backed by Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary and Robert Jenrick, the Local Government secretary, among others.
It is seen as a more attractive alternative to a "circuit break" two-week national lockdown, the idea of which emerged last week and was blamed by Number 10 on leaks from a meeting of scientific advisers.
One Cabinet minister told The Telegraph: "At the moment there is a range of different measures being applied in different places.
"A three-tiered approach that is more consistent across the country will set out the steps we will take as the 'R' rate increases. The virtue is that it gives greater clarity and consistency. What is in the tiers is subject to further discussion."
Another minister said the Government wanted "to take lessons of local lockdowns and looking at what works in terms of infection control" by cracking down on person-to-person infection.
However, a Whitehall source said: "There is a proposal in the Whitehall system to look at a tiered approach. It is in the system, it is being considered, but no decisions have been made and it has not been signed off yet."
A senior Government source added: "It still needs to be properly interrogated to see if this will work on a national level."
What the tiers would mean, and how it would work
A draft three-tier scheme was set out by authorities in London this month. It proposed dividing the capital into areas with fewer than 20 cases per 100,0000 ("green"), 20 to 50 per 100,000 ("amber") and more than 50 per 100,000 ("red").
If this scheme were applied to England it would mean over 30 million people in 149 local authority areas would be subject to the upper two "amber" and "red" tiers in which additional restrictions apply.
Using the London model, the "green" areas would be kept under control through the NHS Test and Trace system. Marshals would patrol the streets to enforce the "rule of six", while pubs and restaurants would close at 10pm. Schools, care homes and businesses would be monitored to make sure they are Covid-secure.
The "amber" tier would see social contacts and religious gatherings restricted further, while people's movements could be curtailed. Authorities would scale up testing capacity to identify and isolate those carrying the virus, while public health bodies would carry out increased monitoring of care homes, hospitals and workplaces for further outbreaks.
The "red" tier would see stricter local lockdowns imposed, but schools would only be closed as a last resort.
The app, which launches on Thursday and is based on Apple and Google's privacy-centric software, marks the second attempt by the Department of Health and Social Care to develop a software to bolster the contact tracing effort.
As well as using QR codes in venues, it relies on Bluetooth technology to make a record of close contacts – those who have come within two metres for 15 minutes.
Users who have tested positive for the virus or have suspected symptoms are expected to upload those details into the app, whereupon close contacts will be told to self-isolate.