people exercising in a park in London
(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

The UK has been in lockdown for a long time now - but are the restrictions working to bring down cases? 

The third lockdown was announced back in January this year. With it came the order to 'stay at home' and the promise of a roadmap out of lockdown when it thought that the restrictions had been successful enough to reduce the number of hospitalisations and cases of Covid-19.

Now the plan for lifting the restrictions is being rolled out over the next few months, does that mean that lockdown is working?

Is lockdown working in England?

Thankfully, the numbers suggest that lockdown restrictions are working in England to reduce the number of new infections. 4,781 new infections were recorded on March 22. This is down by almost 1000 from the previous week, where 5, 592 new infections were recorded.

The R-number, the rate of virus growth, is also down for the whole of the UK to between 0.6 and 0.9, with a daily infection growth rate range of -6% to -3% as of 19 March 2021. This means that the virus is shrinking around the country, rather than growing, as was happening when the R-number was at 1 or above.

However, recent results from Imperial College London's REACT study suggest that while coronavirus infections continue to fall in England, they are not declining at the same rate they were in February and it's been suggested that infections are rising again in London, the South East and the Midlands.

Man walks down the street next to 'wear a mask' sign as lockdown is working in the UK

Credit: Getty

It's thought that 1 in 204 people in England are now infected with the virus, working out to roughly 0.49% of the population. This is a fall of more than two-thirds since January this year, when 1 in 64 people were infected.

Professor Paul Elliott, director of the REACT programme from Imperial’s School of Public Health, said, “The fall in infections our study has observed since January demonstrates that national public health measures are working. But these new findings showing that some areas are experiencing apparent growth reinforce the need for everyone to continue to stick to the rules and help keep infections down.

"At this critical time, with lockdown soon to be eased, we need to make sure that our behaviours don’t risk a rise in infections which could prolong restrictions, which we all want to avoid.”

Health Secretary Matt Hancock opened a debate in the House of Commons on March 25 with a similar message, urging people to continue to follow the rules. "Cases are rising in some areas and they are rising among those under 18. There are early signs of cases flattening among the working age population too.

"But while we are confident that we have broken the link between the number of cases and the hospitalisations and deaths that previously inevitably followed, no vaccine is perfect and take-up isn’t 100%. So that link while broken is not yet severed. New variants also remain a risk because we don’t yet know with confidence the impact of the vaccine against the new variants."

Matt Hancock also confirmed that the government's roadmap would not be moved along any quicker than planned for the same reason. When asked about a report in The Times which suggests the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 is expected to halve in the next two weeks, the health secretary said that cases could still go up so there wouldn't be any change to the current lockdown lifting measures.

During the third lockdown, new hospital admissions appeared to reach their peak seven days after the lockdown began. They have now dramatically reduced in England, with 134 fewer admissions for coronavirus recorded on March 22 compared to 7 days before.

This is more successful than the cases numbers following the short, sharp circuit breaker lockdown in November.

Is lockdown working in Wales?

The situation is similar in Wales as it is in England. While total cases are still rising, the number of new infections is slowly decreasing.

150 people tested positive for coronavirus in Wales on March 22, compared to 248 people exactly seven days before. This is a dramatic decline of almost 100 cases over a seven day period and according to the government's trends, it looks like it's on the downward slope.

This has been the case since late January and to reflect the positive developments in cases, the Welsh government made some changes to their lockdown rules earlier in the year. This began with allowing two people from different households to meet outside together for exercise and was followed by the gradual reopening of schools from February 22.

Is lockdown working in Scotland?

The situation in Scotland is fluctuating more than in the rest of the UK. It appears that the country is in a similar situation to England and Wales though. The numbers of total cases are steadily increasing but the numbers of daily new infections are on the decline.

214,937 people in total had Covid-19 on March 22 in Scotland, compared to seven days before when 211,122 had the virus. This is a decent decrease of 3,815 cases over a seven day period.

Experts warned that Scotland would take a cautious approach to lifting lockdown measures but now, Nicola Sturgeon has set out "indicative" dates for easing restrictions. It depends on the continued progress in driving down infection rates and the current rules are set to relax into the levels system instigated earlier in the pandemic.

Scotland in lockdown

Credit: Getty

Have lockdown restrictions worked in Northern Ireland?

Total cases in Northern Ireland are also on the increase, with new daily infections steadily in decline.

On March 22, 116,208 people had the virus in Northern Ireland. This was an increase from the 115,138 total cases a week before.

The idea that the lockdown is working as a whole comes from this steady decline in new cases. It should reflect the total number of positive cases in a few weeks. When people get better from the illness, they begin testing negative. Combined with lower daily increased in infections, created by the lockdown, the overall rate of Covid-19 in the UK should decrease.

Why wasn't lockdown working before?

In January, lockdown wasn't working to quell numbers of Covid-19 cases. 3,274,397 people were positive with coronavirus on January 27. This was up by over 100,000 from the previous week, where 3,135,985 people were positive with the virus.

Woman stands outside train station in London with face mask on

Credit: Getty

Professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College, Steven Riley, predicted this would be the case in Imperial College London’s React study, one of the data sources used by the government to track the progress of coronavirus in the UK. The research showed that infection in England actually increased during the third lockdown, between January 6 and 15.

He said in an interview with Times Radio at the time, “It’s long enough that, were the lockdown working effectively, we would certainly have hoped to have seen a decline.”

Previously lockdowns have shown a decline in cases, but he added that the current research “certainly doesn’t support the conclusion that lockdown is working”.

He also said that he was “extremely concerned” about the high infection rates in the community at the time and that the number of people in hospital in England was “astronomically high”.

This could have been because the restrictions during the third lockdown have not been as strict as the first. Under the current exercise rules for lockdown, two people from different households can meet together outdoors. Many of the biggest industries in the UK, such as construction, are still open for business both indoors and outside. Until recently, anyone coming into the country didn't have to give a negative coronavirus test. Flights were still incoming from all over the world. Rates of self-isolation after returning from abroad had also reached a record low, with less than 20% of people told to self-isolate actually doing so.

Experts have also reported that the struggle is related to people's attitudes around the pandemic. Now more than ever before, people are bending the rules around the restrictions and have become comfortable doing so, according to the Covid-19 Social Study by University College London.

The survey asks 70,000 adults every week about the effects of the virus and social distancing. Recently, they've concluded that women follow the rules more closely than men. Wealthier people tend to be less compliant. Key workers also bend the rules more frequently (although this could be related more to their jobs). Adults aged 18 to 29 years old are the same.

In England, people follow the rules less than in other parts of the UK. As do people living in cities and adults living with children tend to follow the rules less too.

However, overall most people are in fact following the rules. Not always, but most of the time.

Grace Walsh
Features Writer

Grace Walsh is a health and wellbeing writer, working across the subjects of family, relationships, and LGBT topics, as well as sleep and mental health. A digital journalist with over six years  experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace is currently Health Editor for and has also worked with Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more. After graduating from the University of Warwick, she started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness.