What is a circuit breaker lockdown and will we have one soon?

It’s the plan being debated right now to take place in the next few weeks.
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  • Since cases of COVID-19 began to rise in the UK in September, there have been reports of another quick lockdown being considered to help stem the spread of the virus.

    Also known as a ‘circuit-breaker’ or ‘firebreak’ lockdown, it’s an idea that’s been supported by some of England’s most senior politicians as a way to enforce self-isolation and prevent another national lockdown in the months to come, while more stages of the Pfizer vaccine are undertaken. But others have argued that it would destroy industries, such as hospitality, who are still on unstable footing following the previous lockdown.

    Discussions on the subject come as the new three tier system was announced for the whole of England. The lockdown measures put different regions into varying risk categories – ‘medium’, ‘high risk’ and ‘very high risk’ – and carry more intense restrictions the further up the levels an area goes. Most recently, it was announced that London would be moving from tier one, ‘medium’, to tier 2 which is deemed ‘high risk’. Liverpool was the first area to take on harsher restrictions as part of the system, as they were put into tier 3 upon the announcement and was shortly followed by Lancashire. A circuit-breaker or firebreak lockdown is another way to stem the spread more effectively, many scientific advisors to the government believe and there’s been a clear push towards localised lockdowns as a means to stop the spread of coronavirus around the country, while keeping the economy operating and non-essential businesses open. 

    But there are some who say this isn’t enough, after there were further demands to make improvements to NHS Test and Trace recently. In the week leading up to October 7, almost 90,000 people tested positive for coronavirus, which was approximately 6% of everyone who was tested. One of the solutions proposed elsewhere in Wales is that of a circuit-breaker lockdown, so what exactly is it? And will England have one soon?

    What is a circuit-breaker lockdown?

    Credit: Getty

    A circuit-breaker lockdown is the name that politicians and scientists have given to the idea of a lockdown that lasts just a couple of weeks, as a short-term solution to stop the transmission of COVID-19. The break would give the NHS time to recover from the surge without the longer economic consequences of a three-month lockdown like we saw from March this year. 

    Professor Matt Keeling, the government’s advisor told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, “What we’ve got at the moment is a situation where most areas of the country are facing an exponential rise in cases, and what a circuit-breaker or precautionary break would do is drive down R for that short two-week period.It would effectively bide us more time to put other controls in place. 

    “One of the ways of thinking about this is it kind of takes us back in time to when cases where lower, and therefore gives us opportunities to do other things, it reduces the number of cases as well as leading to a similar decline in hospitalisations and also deaths over a short period.” 

    Is a firebreak and circuit-breaker lockdown the same thing?

    Although its official meaning hasn’t been explained, a firebreak and circuit-breaker lockdown are essentially the same thing and they both mean a short, heavy lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus. Its name comes from the fire-prevention method of having a strip of land in a wood or forest, where trees are removed, to prevent a fire from spreading.

    It’s thought that now both Wales and the Northern Ireland have taken on this firebreak, or circuit-breaker lockdown, there will be pressure on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to do the same for England. But it’s been largely rejected, as a spokesperson said that he “continues to believe that targeted local action in areas of high prevalence of the virus is the correct course”.

    Wales firebreak: What are the new Welsh lockdown rules?

    The new circuit-breaker, otherwise known as ‘firebreak’, lockdown rules in Wales include an instruction to stay at home wherever possible as the country will be on lockdown from Friday October 23 until November 9. The only exceptions to this are essential workers, where working from home isn’t possible.

    The new instruction was issued by First Minister Mark Drakeford, who told a press conference that all non-essential retail, leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses will also close just as they had during the March lockdown. This means that everyone must work from home wherever possible and stay inside, except for very limited reasons such as exercise. People are also banned from meeting outside of their households, either indoors or outside, with exceptions for those who live alone.

    He said, “This fire break is the shortest we can make it, but that means that it will have to be sharp and deep in order to have the impact we need it to have on the virus.”

    But in Wales, some students won’t be returning to the classroom and will continue to work at home. Universities will continue to offer both in-person and online classes during this period, but all students are required to stay in their university accommodation under the new guidelines. Mark Drakeford added, “Other children taking examinations will be able to attend, but all other students will continue their learning from home,”

    As Halloween and Bonfire Night approaches, the first minister emphasised that celebrations and gathering for the two events were strictly prohibited. While non-essential travel within Wales has effectively been banned, with increased border restrictions for those coming into the country from areas of high coronavirus levels around England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    Over the weekend, there was mounting speculation about whether the short, sharp circuit-breaker lockdown would come into play soon as the Wales director of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, John Pockett, said on Friday that the break would begin on October 23 and end on November 9. It’s thought that Wales will go back into lockdown as a “firebreak” or circuit-breaker, with the situation going back to how it was earlier in the year.

    Wales Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, has said that the idea of a circuit-breaker lockdown “weighs heavily” on officials due to the impact that the lockdown would have on the country’s economy. He told BBC Politics Wales that he understood the circuit-breaker would have real-world consequences “in terms of people being able to pay their bills”.

    “We’re also not blind to the fact that doing nothing means that Covid will continue to grow and we will continue to see harm,” he added. “We want to be able to get to the end of the year with a pattern that people can live with. What we can’t do though is give people a guarantee that things will not happen during the winter. That depends on all the choices that we make.”

    Will we have a circuit-breaker lockdown soon in the UK?

    If we’ve learned anything in the last six months, it’s to make no guarantees so naturally, there has been no confirmation about whether England or other parts of the UK will be taking on a circuit-breaker lockdown. Boris Johnson has insisted that the new three tier system is the way forward to bring the R-rate under control, provided that the public follow the rules. He has, however, confirmed that harsher restrictions will come into play if the spread continues. 

    Although, other politicians have thrown their support behind the idea of the circuit-breaker lockdown. Both Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer and London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan have confirmed that they believe the circuit-breaker is the best way forward, especially with half term coming up soon. Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green has now become the most recent minister to confirm her support as she said, “Rates are continuing to rise with the measures we have now, they’re not working so we have to try something different.”

    In one twitter post, Keir Starmer wrote, ‘We need a circuit break to fix testing, protect the NHS and save lives.’

    This leaves the government less than a week to make the decision and while we have seen fast changes enforced before, it’s unlikely that a national circuit-breaker lockdown will be announced in the coming days. Especially as minister Michael Gove has rejected the calls for a circuit-breaker lockdown in England, confirming suspicions that no immediate decisions would be made, but England could see themselves entering the short lockdown if cases continue to rise in the future. 

    What would a circuit-breaker lockdown mean?

    While it might sound like a good idea in theory, the circuit-breaker lockdown would involve the strictest measures. This could include a total ban on inter-household and support bubble mixing, non-essential travel and the complete closure of non-essential shops and the hospitality industry. This would mean that pubs would close again under the new restrictions and many worry that businesses would not be viable when it’s time to open them again. 

    In the other countries that have undertaken these short lockdowns, it has involved schools closing and restaurants only doing takeaways, but in Singapore it did not prove effective. Similar closures were reported in Israel, who also went into lockdown for a few weeks. People were not able to travel more than 500 metres from their home apart from to carry out essential tasks, there were full closures of non-essential shops and a limit of 10 for gatherings. 

    Do circuit-breaker lockdowns work?

    While they might restrict contact between people, there is some debate about whether they actually work after looking at the results from other countries. 

    In Singapore and Israel, the short lockdown proved ineffective. In Singapore, cases continued to rise and peaked at 1,426 new cases on April 20, so the circuit-breaker was extended until June 1. In Israel, the infection rate grew during the lockdown. However elsewhere such as New Zealand has seen immensely positive changes following their lockdowns. On April 18, New Zealand recorded 13 new cases of coronavirus but didn’t have another day that recorded more than 9 until months later on August 12. 

    Why do people want one?

    mother and child staying at home, circuit breaker lockdown

    Credit: Getty

    The UK has seen a rapid increase in positive cases of coronavirus since the lockdown measures were lifted. It’s thought that by taking the country into a shorter lockdown, we could effectively backpedal by about 28 days and lift the pressure on the NHS, while keeping the economy from suffering. 

    A new pool found that out of over 3,000 adults in the UK, 68 percent would support two weeks of lockdown later in October, compared to one in five who opposed it. This follows the news that the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) recommended that the government implement a circuit-breaker lockdown three weeks ago, inferring that it was the best course of action going forward. 

    Now, new statistics have also been revealed by the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M). They have determined that a circuit-breaker lockdown could reduce deaths from coronavirus for the rest of the year down from 19, 900 to 12,100, with hospital admissions also reduced from 132,400 down to 66,500. 

    So while some are saying this is a brilliant idea, that with further invention could keep the R-rate down, others argue it’s a little too late. 

    Is it too late for a circuit-breaker lockdown?

    While the debate has been happening around whether to go into a circuit-breaker lockdown, Professor Graham Medley of government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said that it was now ‘too late’ for the pre-planned lockdown and that ministers had ‘missed the boat’ on enforcing it. 

    The SAGE member added that “any time from August to now would have been a better time to do it”, as “coinciding it with schools closing is important.The key is to do it when you don’t have to.” 

    However another member of the group, Professor Jeremy Farrar has said that it’s “never too late” for national restrictions. “In my view the best time to do this would have been around 20th September as Sage advised, that wasn’t decided upon then. The second best time to do this is now and the worst time to do this is at the end of November when things would have really got considerably worse.”

    He went onto say, “It’s better to do it now than in a month’s time.”

    This revelation came as SAGE published the minutes from their meetings last week, which showed that it had called for a circuit-breaker lockdown three weeks ago. Since then, the government has been under intense pressure to follow the advice given to them and enact the short lockdown around the country. 

    However as we have seen over the last few months, nothing is for certain and we could be taking on another circuit-breaker lockdown in the next couple of weeks as we approach half term.

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