Scientists divided over whether measure would be overkill or would fail to go far enough to tackle rising coronavirus cases
In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government’s insistence that it was “following the science” became a convenient deflection from criticism and brought legitimacy to the major erosion of personal freedoms.
But it may be harder to justify a second “circuit break” national lockdown when so many scientists are divided on whether that will be effective.
Squabbling has already begun between academics who think it is overkill, those who warn it causes confusion after economy-boosting schemes such as “Eat Out to Help Out”, and those who do not believe it goes far enough.
Most agree that a two-week national shutdown is unlikely to be a silver bullet, and at best will merely buy some time to bring down the ‘R’ rate and sort out the current testing debacle (see video below).
Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), from Edinburgh University, who helped model the effectiveness of a “circuit break” lockdown in March, said the measure offered much-needed breathing space.
“It buys you more time and puts us in charge, rather than just responding to the virus as we have been doing with local lockdowns,” he said.
“We modelled the use of this kind of intervention and it has been one of the tools we’ve had in the box. It depends on the numbers, but you can double your money and maybe get four weeks benefit from just two weeks of shutdown before the numbers start climbing again.
“That’s quite a lot of time, and Matt Hancock said he needed a few weeks to get testing capacity sorted – and this could buy them the time to do that.”
At best, it is hoped a “circuit break” lockdown could cut new infections by half, and although incidence would start to increase again at the end of the two weeks, it would be another few weeks before it rose to pre-break levels.
It can be scheduled and planned for, which would mean it is less disruptive to businesses and the economy. But Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at the University of Nottingham, warned that it seemed like a U-turn on attempts to get the economy moving again.
“It does seem ironic, after encouraging mass attendance at pubs, cafes and restaurants through ‘Eat Out to Help Out’, that we are now contemplating restricting or closing those activities down,” he said.
Scientists said it was becoming increasingly clear that social distancing, face masks (see video below) and good hygiene were not enough to keep coronavirus under control. Many believe two weeks is insufficient to gain control of the virus because it takes far longer for cases to fall than to rise.
Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia, believes that lockdown will always need to be twice as long as non-lockdown. Two weeks is simply not long enough to undo the current damage, he warned.
“The problem is that cases decline in lockdown at a much slower rate than cases increase during the period before,” he said. “This can be clearly seen by looking at the graph of case reports by day in the UK. In the 28 days up to the peak in early April, case numbers were doubling about every seven days and more rapidly than that early on.
“In the following 56 days, case numbers were only halving every four weeks, though partly this was because of better availability of testing. So an on-off approach to lockdown is only likely to work if we have at least twice as long in lockdown as out of lockdown.”
There is another problem with a two-week lockdown. The lag between cases falling (use the graphic below to find out about the number of cases in your area) and that showing up in the statistics is around three weeks, so it would be impossible to know whether it was working until it was already over.
Rowland Kao, Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Crucially, two weeks will be insufficient time to fully assess the impact of those restrictions.
“Even if ‘R’ drops below one, cases will continue at similar levels for some time. Thus, for the slowing down effect of the ‘circuit break’ to be helpful, this would require that there be enough time for the current Test and Trace difficulties to be resolved. Two weeks is unlikely to be enough for this.”
The row is indicative of the growing uncertainty over the best way to tackle the virus.
Many scientists cannot even agree whether the rise represents a true second wave, or whether lockdown was lifted too early and we are seeing a bounce-back.
That argument, at least, may soon prove academic. As Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, pointed out: “When the hospitals start filling up, who cares about the definition of a second wave?”
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Lockdown, Coronavirus, Matt Hancock
World news – GB – Would a two-week ‘circuit break’ lockdown work?