In Depth

‘National vs. regional’: how and when will the UK impose a ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown?

Keir Starmer calls on PM to explain decision to reject measures backed by government scientists

Keir Starmer squared up against Boris Johnson today over the prime minister’s refusal to act on expert advice to impose a national two-week lockdown.

During a “fiery” Prime Minister’s Questions, the Labour leader accused Johnson of “ignoring top scientific advisers” and “abandoning the science” as coronavirus infections rates continue to rise across the UK, The Guardian reports.

The PM hit back by pointing out that Starmer yesterday backed calls for a “circuit breaker” lockdown but then “failed to even show up” for a Commons vote on imposing “more stringent measures” on a regional basis.

Sage advice

Responding to Starmer’s criticisms during their Commons clash, Johnson insisted that his new three-tier system for local shutdowns would “avoid the misery of a national lockdown”.

But “the prime minister would not rule out imposing a circuit breaker if those measures fail to work”, after Starmer “argued that the regional approach doesn’t ‘go far enough’”, says The Telegraph.

Documents published by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) earlier this week show that Johnson was warned in September that without an immediate two-week lockdown, the country faced a “very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences”.

Today, Starmer told Johnson that rising coronavirus rates and hospital admissions across the country were “the cost of rejecting Sage advice”.

In response, the PM accused his rival of U-turning, after the Labour leader backed the three tier-strategy on Monday before calling for a circuit break last night, following the publication of the Sage documents. 

Johnson told MPs: “I rule out nothing, of course, in combating the virus, but we're going to do it with the local, regional approach that can drive down and will drive down the virus if it is properly implemented.”

Regional or national?

The fresh wave of Covid infections makes further restrictions inevitable. But what remains to be seen is how and when those stricter regulations are implemented. 

Northern Ireland has today imposed a four-week circuit breaker lockdown, with pubs and restaurants forced to close as of Friday, although places of worship and gyms are allowed to remain open.

Announcing the move, First Minister Arlene Foster “said the half-term holiday would be extended, and now last from 19 to 30 October”, Sky News reports.

Foster added that “we do not take this step lightly” and that “small acts can have large and important contributions to managing Covid-19”.

Wales may be set to follow Northern Ireland, with First Minister Mark Drakeford telling Sky News’ Kay Burley that ministers are “planning very seriously” for a circuit breaker lockdown. “We want to act now in order to prevent the worst from happening,” he said. 

Drakeford did not set any dates for further restrictions, but has “called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to convene a Cobra meeting so that all four UK nations could discuss the measure”, the BBC reports. 

Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething said earlier today that a decision would be made this week on whether to introduce a blanket lockdown.

Meanwhile, Johnson is said to be “considering a series of regional circuit-breaker lockdowns to target Covid-hit areas and avoid further national measures”, The Sun reports. How this would differ from the patchwork of local regulations for England that are being replaced by the three-tier system is unclear.

Fresh data

Pressure on Johnson to take drastic action will be increased by a new research paper seen by the BBC that suggest a two-week circuit breaker at the end of October could halve deaths in the UK between now and the end of the year.

The analysis, by a team from the University of Warwick and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has not been reviewed by scientists. But the researchers believe that “deaths could be reduced by between 29% and 49%”, depending on “the trajectory of the epidemic”, says the BBC’s health and science correspondent James Gallagher. 

The number of lives saved between now and the start of 2021 range from 80, if the UK outbreaks spread slowly and mild restrictions are introduced, to 106,000, if infections spread rapidly and severe restrictions are required, according to the projections. 

The scientists behind the report emphasise that the highest numbers are a worst-case scenario, but study co-author Dr Michael Tildesley insists that “overall, the results are very common sense”.

“The key thing is we would get a decline in cases and similar reductions in hospital admission and mortality,” he added. “We’re getting into a period where we know the NHS is facing high demands, so the benefit is protecting the NHS from a wave of admission of Covid cases.”

More than half (54%) of people surveyed by YouGov on Tuesday said the government should have introduced a national lockdown when advised to do so in September. Only 28% of the 4,222 adults polled backed Downing Street’s decision.


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