In Depth

What is ‘segmenting’ - and could it end the lockdown?

Ending restrictions on younger people could help restart economy

Public health experts are considering the idea of “segmenting” the population into different risk groups, with enhanced protection for the elderly and vulnerable people, as a route out of the coronavirus lockdown.

The million-plus people deemed to be most in danger if they caught the virus would be told to continue self-isolating even after close family have restrictions on their movement lifted. 

The Times reports that this would “allow younger people to play a part in restarting the economy and perhaps gain some level of general population immunity that would help to protect older people until a vaccine arrived”.

So how does segmenting work – and is it the only route out of the lockdown?

What is segmenting?

The so-called segmentation strategy references back to the government’s initial response to the pandemic, when it suggested attempting to achieve “herd immunity” throughout the UK population.

However, rather than letting the virus pass through the entire general population, segmenting would involve “cocooning” elderly people while letting only younger people leave their homes again, the Times says.

This would allow the virus to pass through the population in a managed way.

According to recent statistics, people in their 20s make up 0.78% of all fatalities from coronavirus so far in the UK, meaning they are far less vulnerable than older people.

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Would it work?

Andrew J Oswald, a professor of economics and behavioural science at the University of Warwick, argues that while the entire UK population faces “severe economic risk” from those measures, young people are likely to be particularly hard hit by a looming recession and thus need to re-enter the workforce as soon as possible.

“They’re the lowest-earning age group,” Oswald told Time. “They’re also beginning their careers and this [period of lockdown] might have long term deleterious effects on their career trajectory.”

Segmenting would allow some bars and shops to reopen, even for a limited clientele, and allow other businesses to start getting back to work as normal.

A complication of any segmenting plan would be the need for those who come into regular contact with the vulnerable to accept restrictions.

According to research published by Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee, a professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, the move would allow 4.2 million people to return work and get the economy moving again. 

However, The Guardian reports that as recent deaths have shown, the young are not immune to the disease, with experts estimating that a so-called “youth-first” segmenting policy could lead to 630 premature deaths.

What other options does the government have?

A gradual easing of restrictions on shops and businesses could help the economy, according to some experts. For example, in Austria, where new cases have been falling for some days, schools will remain closed, but small shops, DIY and garden centres have been allowed to reopen.

There is a significant threat of a second wave of infections if lockdowns are eased too quickly, so only certain types of shops would reopen and with strict limits on hours and numbers. 

Another idea touted by experts is a regional approach that would see restrictions lifted in certain parts of the country.

The Times suggests that this would help alleviate pressure on the NHS, which varies in different parts of the country.

“The disease in London, for example, appears to be reaching its peak faster than in other areas and could possibly start declining earlier too,” the paper says. “Therefore ministers might decide to ease restrictions on a regional basis while strongly advising people not to travel between areas.”

However, the paper also notes that the UK is a “small, highly interconnected island – and such measures could have little effect on containing the spread of the disease”.

However despite the speculation, scientific advisers including Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, have said it is too early to talk about lifting the lockdown.

The Guardian suggests that while there are splits in the cabinet about when to end the lockdown, an “exit plan is unlikely to emerge” until “the tide has begun to turn on the UK’s high death rate in hospitals and care homes”.

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