An expected rise in coronavirus cases in the autumn and winter, as temperatures plummet and rumours of an October “firebreak” lockdown circulate, have sparked a debate over the next stage of the pandemic response.
Speaking to the i newspaper, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned that cases are “going to be at a peak, albeit an extended peak, quite soon,” which could mean restrictions are reinstated over the school half-term at the end of October.
However, the government has announced its Covid-19 winter plan, which aims to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed over the coming months. Through its five pillars of further vaccinations (booster shots for priority groups and jabs for under-16s), additional funding for the NHS and social care, the continuation of test and trace, a large-scale flu vaccination programme and changes to international travel, it is hoped that local and national lockdowns can be prevented.
But while some coronavirus-specific laws have been revoked, such as the power to close schools, the government has not confirmed if this has been extended to powers to impose lockdowns, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid saying that “the remaining provisions will be those that are critical to the government’s response to the pandemic”.
Should cases surge, however, the government has announced a number of measures that would be imposed before any notion of a lockdown would be considered. These include increased public health messaging, the re-imposing of mandates for masks to be worn in certain spaces, work from home instructions and the introduction of vaccine passports.
While a full national lockdown seems unlikely, the i suggests that restrictions on social distancing, mask-wearing and travel could return, alongside an extension to the half-term. “It would be sensible to have contingency plans, and if a lockdown is required, to time it so that it has minimal economic and societal impact,” said the anonymous government scientist.
However, the government has pushed back against any suggestion of restrictions returning, with the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson saying that Downing Street was not “planning a lockdown or firebreak around the October half-term”, adding that restrictions “would only be re-introduced as a last resort to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS”.
The spokesperson added: “I think we’ve been clear throughout that we will take action, and indeed we have done when necessary to protect our NHS. But under the previous occasions when that action has been required, we have been without the significant defences that our vaccination programme provides us – we’re now in a much different phase.”
Who is talking about another lockdown?
Speaking anonymously, the Sage scientist noted that “this [plan] is essentially the precautionary break that Sage suggested last year”, which the government initially ignored.
However, despite cases and hospitalisations being higher now than they were this time last year, the scientist claims that the current outlook is not as urgent. “It’s not really the same situation as last year,” said the Sage member, “when failure to reduce prevalence would have resulted in the collapse of the NHS and people dying in car parks.
“Hospitals might be overflowing before deaths reach the same level. Acting early will prevent this level,” he added.
Another government source who spoke to the i was more pressing, calling on the government to “seriously consider” more restrictions if the trajectory of cases and hospitalisation continues.
“While deaths are high compared to last year and are unlikely to hit the levels as seen last autumn [a peak of 695 deaths on 25 November] because the vaccines are doing their job, it is the admissions that will push the NHS to the brink of collapse if they do not fall soon,” said the source.
But perhaps most telling over the likelihood of what would be a fourth national lockdown is that no government official has hinted at the need for a so-called firebreak.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi and the government recently confirmed that plans to introduce Covid passports for entry into mass events and nightclubs will begin this month. The minister described the measure as the “best way” to avoid re-imposing restrictions in the winter.
Wasn’t the Covid vaccine rollout meant to stop another lockdown?
While the coronavirus vaccines have greatly reduced serious illness and deaths, they do not provide full immunity to the virus.
Britain’s vaccine rollout has been among the best in the world, with over 80 per cent of the population already doubled-jabbed.
However, the success of the rollout was largely due to restrictions last winter, which slowed the spread of the virus and allowed people to be vaccinated.
Regardless of when it happened, the lifting of restrictions was going to lead to an inevitable rise in cases and hospitalisations as society began to mix. The gamble for Boris Johnson, as New Statesman political editor Stephen Bush explains, was about when to green-light the full reopening of society, and therefore rising cases.
By ending restrictions on 19 July (“Freedom Day”), the government tried to time the post-restriction peak in cases and hospitalisations during the summer, as opposed to the autumn, to prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed as it deals with other seasonal illnesses like the flu.
But with cases and hospitalisations still high heading into autumn, the success of this plan remains difficult to predict.
Early research claims that vaccine efficacy may wane over time. A study in China indicates that the herd immunity threshold – the proportion of the population who have immunity from the virus – may need to be as high as 85 per cent, up from 60-70 per cent, to stop the spread of the virus.
Research around fading vaccine efficacy will continue, but the problem could be addressed with annual booster shots to account for new variants.
How likely is an October lockdown in practice?
Though the trends surrounding cases, hospitalisations and deaths are potential cause for concern, for now, a full, national lockdown – as seen three times previously – is considered unlikely.
As outlined in the government’s Covid-19 winter plan, with further vaccinations for both vulnerable groups and children to come, in addition to extra funding for the NHS, the continuation of test and trace, a flu vaccination program and changes to international travel, it is hoped that pressure on the NHS will be eased.
However, the government has refused to revoke the law it introduced last year to impose lockdowns – so it is at least feasible. But other, less restrictive measures including the re-imposing of mask mandates, work from home instructions and the introduction of vaccine passports are available and could avoid local or national lockdowns over the coming months.
A number of other previous measures including social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing, in addition to limits on indoor gatherings and travel, could be used by Boris Johnson’s government to try to slow the spread of the virus without the need of another full lockdown.
But the government has denied that it plans to introduce either a “firebreak” or full lockdown in October. Plans for winter booster shots that aim to offer better protection against the virus are “ready to go” pending approval from scientists, which would “help us transition the virus from pandemic to endemic status,” according to Zahawi.
In the meantime, the government must continue to monitor closely the effect that cases and hospitalisations will have on the NHS over the coming months.