Hospitals and councils have been told to find extra beds for coronavirus patients within two weeks as the NHS braces for a second spike in cases.
With hospital admissions beginning to increase following a steep rise in virus infections, isolation units in which Covid-19 patients can recover are being set up, freeing space on wards for those needing the most care.
More than 10 million people will soon be living in local lockdown areas after the North East became the latest region to impose curfews, with Liverpool and parts of the West Midlands expected to follow within days.
Chaos at testing centres (see video below) continued on Thursday as Baroness Harding, the head of NHS Test and Trace, admitted that up to one million people a day are applying for 230,000 available tests.
It also emerged that Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is planning to adopt a national "traffic light" system for putting regions into lockdown, with local action being triggered when infection rates reach a set level.
A template for the so-called "escalation framework", seen by The Telegraph, includes provision for "mandatory masks" at the amber level, suggesting face coverings will be legally required in even more settings than they are now.
The Telegraph understands that ministers will on Friday confirm that family visits to care homes will be paused in areas in which infections are highest.
While the proposals were still being finalised on Thursday night, they are expected to be included in the winter care plan aimed at reducing the spread of the virus among elderly residents.
Another 3,395 people tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday, with a further 21 deaths, as infection rates soared in much of northern England.
With cases reaching the highest levels since May (use the graphic below to find out about cases in your area) and the current trajectory pointing towards a second peak in the next two weeks, hospitals are preparing for a possible influx of patients after admissions tripled in a fortnight.
The numbers of people in hospital remain low compared with the first peak of the virus, however.
Bolton, the coronavirus hotspot of England, has only two Covid-19 patients on hospital wards, according to the most recent NHS data. Across all 18 "intervention" areas listed on Public Health England's watchlist, 141 people out of a population of more than five million are in hospital with the disease – one hospital case for every 38,000 people.
MPs in London were told last week of plans to increase the number of "step down" beds in which coronavirus patients in the capital who no longer need hospital treatment can recover in isolation.
One MP briefed on the plans during a conference call with health bosses told The Telegraph: "The rate of infection is going up, and I was told hospitals have reserved beds for people coming out of hospital who need somewhere to recover.
Watch: Can the coronavirus affect the brain?
"At the start of lockdown they were having to send people back to care homes or back to other facilities, with dire consequences, so they've booked places in respite care or empty care homes. People will go out of hospital, but they won't return to their normal place of living. They just need care before they go back home so that they empty the hospital wards."
A former minister added: "The effort is being made to step up capacity so that if there is a second spike the NHS doesn't fall so far behind with other types of care.
"Different parts of London are looking at different ways to handle that, but everyone has learnt that terrible lesson that you cannot discharge people into care homes if there is any danger whatsoever that they might be Covid positive, so there is a big effort to find extra beds.
"Brent rented an entire care home and they discharged their people into another care home. I think other places will be doing that as part of their efforts to get ready for a second spike."
Another source who was on the call said councils had been given the job of finding extra beds and that disused care homes were likely to be used.
The isolation wards would be in addition to the NHS Nightingale Hospitals, which provide extra capacity for treating people with coronavirus rather than space for them to recover.
Channel 4 News claimed on Thursday night that care home providers in Greater Manchester are being told they must accept Covid-positive patients from hospitals.
A leaked contract from Trafford Council outlines how eligible care homes will receive Covid-positive patients within just two hours of them being identified by the hospital as ready for discharge. It states that "some of these patients may have Covid-19, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic".
Sage scientists have "considered the case" for a two-week lockdown during the October half term, meaning pupils would only lose one week of lessons, according to the Financial Times.
Lockdown measures were being imposed on Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham at midnight on Thursday night, forcing pubs and restaurants to close at 10pm and banning two households from mixing.
Almost two million people will be affected by the latest lockdown – bringing the nationwide total under local measures to around nine million – with a further million likely to join them if, as expected, Liverpool and parts of the West Midlands are added to the list.
It was reported on Thursday night that restrictions will be announced on Friday for Lancashire, with the exception of Blackpool.
Senior Cabinet ministers were called to a meeting of the "XO" coronavirus operational subcommittee on Thursday afternoon to discuss more local lockdowns.
In Liverpool, the rate has jumped sharply from 67.5 cases per 100,000 people to 107.8 in the past week, a higher rate than many parts of the North East which are already in lockdown.
Last week Mr Hancock (seen announcing the latest restrictions in the video below) and Baroness Harding attended a virtual "London Covid-19 summit" at which they discussed an "epidemic response escalation framework" that would give greater transparency to decisions on putting areas into lockdown.
Areas with infection rates at the lowest level would be subject to national restrictions such as the "rule of six", while areas above a certain rate of infection would be subject to more stringent measures. Those with the highest rates of infection would face the tightest restrictions.
The infection rates for each category would be made public, enabling people to prepare for the possibility of local lockdowns by monitoring published data on their area.
According to a draft document seen by the Telegraph, areas in the middle band would have "mandatory masks" and "restrict religious gatherings", although the document gives no further detail about what that would involve. Areas with the highest rates would go into local lockdown.