The UK’s COVID-19 alert level has been upgraded from level three to level four, meaning transmission of the virus is high or rising exponentially.

The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recommended upgrading the measure to the second-highest level due to a “rapidly” rising number of cases.

In a statement, they said: “After a period of lower COVID cases and deaths, the number of cases are now rising rapidly and probably exponentially in significant parts of all four nations.

“If we are to avoid significant excess deaths and exceptional pressure in the NHS and other health services over the autumn and winter everyone has to follow the social distancing guidance, wear face coverings correctly and wash their hands regularly.

“We know this will be a concerning news for many people; please follow the rules, look after each other and together we will get through this.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “The raising of the alert level announced by the UK chief medical officers reflects the significant shift in the current threat posed by coronavirus.

“This country now faces a tipping point in its response and it is vital everybody plays their part now to stop the spread of the virus and protect lives.

“The first line of defence has always been all of us playing our part, remembering hands, face and space, the rule of six and self-isolation of those who risk passing on the virus.”