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17 April 2020

What the government’s five tests tell us about when lockdown will end

The requirements for extensive testing and protection suggest it could be a lengthy process.

By Stephen Bush

It’s official: the government has extended the lockdown and set out five tests that must be met before it can end.

Those tests are as follows.:

1) Can the NHS continue to function? This metric is crucial, and often forgotten. But the big reason why the British government changed its approach last month and followed other countries into lockdown is that Plan A would have overwhelmed the health service. This would essentially have meant the end of 20th-century healthcare — not only for people with Covid-19, but for anyone requiring hospital care.

2) Have we moved beyond the peak, with a consistent and daily fall in the death rate? We may well have reached this point already — in any case, you can achieve this target with or without lockdown. It’s the knock-on effect to healthcare in general that caused the government to go down this route.

3) Do we know that the rate of infection is decreasing? This is simply a question of how many new cases each Covid-19 patient begets.

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However, it’s the fourth and fifth tests that are really worth watching, and which highlight the government’s exit strategy.

4) Do we have enough tests and personal protective equipment to meet demand? At the moment, we simply don’t know how many people in the United Kingdom have been infected by the coronavirus, because we have a limited testing regime. The first priority of testing is to prevent hospitals becoming vectors of infection due to asymptomatic staff and patients spreading the disease.

But in the long term, if you want to emulate the only models that, thus far, have been shown to allow a measure of normality to return — that is, if you want the UK at the end of 2020 to look a lot like Taiwan and South Korea do now — you need a major increase in the level of testing equipment and personal protective equipment.

5) Do we risk a second peak? Will we exit lockdown only to trigger a fresh spike in cases?

These two questions appear to leave just two exit strategies available to the government: an indefinite (but certainly long) wait for a vaccine; or a not indefinite (but also long) wait for the necessary infrastructure around test-and-trace to be put in place. Neither option is risk-free, but they are the only exit strategies that meet the government’s criteria.

This should give some pause to those people now confidently asserting that you can’t publish an exit strategy with so many known unknowns. The fact is that the government has essentially ruled out all but two ways out of the maze. Neither of them is going to be quick.