The Prime Minister recently announced that England will go into a second national lockdown, after saying in previous weeks that this wasn’t necessary. Why has the PM changed his mind, how long will the lockdown last, and what will happen after this lockdown?
Why did the Prime Minister change his mind about a national lockdown?
At the beginning of the press conference on Saturday (31 October), Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, and Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, ran through various sources of data the Government has been looking at to help them decide how to handle the next stage of the epidemic.
Overall, the numbers are going up:
People with coronavirus
The number of people with coronavirus has been going up steeply since the beginning of September, and it is now estimated that there are 50,000 people being infected with coronavirus each day. This is happening all over England and is not restricted to hotspot areas. Although the increases were initially among younger age groups, there are now increasing numbers of older people with coronavirus in almost all areas of the country.
However, there is some positive news: because of the changes so many of us have made to our behaviour in the last 7 months, the average person with coronavirus is passing it on to fewer people, so the numbers of people with coronavirus are increasing more slowly than they did in the spring.
People in hospital with coronavirus
The hardest hit regions of England have seen clear increases in the numbers of people going into hospital with coronavirus since the beginning of September, and since the beginning of October all regions of England are showing increases. Looking to the future, the evidence the Government is looking at suggests that, if we didn’t change anything, within about 3 weeks, the number of people in hospital with coronavirus would be higher than the highest number it reached in the spring.
People dying from coronavirus
As with hospitalisations, since the beginning of October deaths from coronavirus have been increasing in all areas of the country. If we didn’t change anything, within about a month the numbers of people dying from coronavirus would be as high as they were at the peak of the first wave of coronavirus back in April.
The numbers have convinced the Prime Minister that, in order to prevent large numbers of deaths and avoid the NHS being unable to treat everyone who needs it, further restrictions on our social contacts are necessary across the whole of England. The Prime Minister has been clear that alternative strategies, whereby people at the greatest risk from coronavirus face restrictions while the rest of the population live their lives as before and the epidemic runs its course, are not feasible. At Age UK we agree.
How long will the lockdown last?
The Prime Minister has insisted that this lockdown will finish on 2 December, however, there have also been suggestions it may need to be extended beyond this date. The Government say that lockdown can be ended when R is below 1 and the number of people with coronavirus is going down, and if the new regulations are followed it is highly likely these two things will happen. However, it’s important to remember that the numbers of people going into hospital and dying from coronavirus are likely to continue to increase for at least the first couple of weeks of the lockdown period, as those people will have already caught coronavirus. This isn’t a sign that the lockdown ‘isn’t working.’
Whether R and the number of people with coronavirus will have fallen enough for it to be sensible to end the lockdown on 2 December is not yet known. As this lockdown is less stringent in some ways than the lockdown in the spring – notably because schools will remain open – it may take longer to be effective than the previous lockdown.
What will happen after the lockdown?
What happens after the lockdown depends on decisions the Government makes. Hopefully during the lockdown there will be substantial improvements so that people with coronavirus symptoms can be tested and get their test results back swiftly, have their contacts traced and be supported to self-isolate to avoid passing the virus on further.
If this happens, we will be able to manage the epidemic whilst also allowing society to start to reopen. If this does not happen, coronavirus will start to spread again as we come out of this lockdown and increase our social contacts again. The risk then, is that repeated lockdowns could be necessary until an effective vaccine is widely available.
More articles by Dr Webb
Dr Elizabeth Webb is Head of Research at Age UK. She has an MSc in Epidemiology from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a PhD in Social Epidemiology from University College London.