In Depth

Which countries have tried circuit breaker lockdowns - and do they work?

Singapore and South Korea saw Covid cases fall but not all of the shutdowns were a success

Boris Johnson is considering imposing a two-week circuit breaker lockdown after warning earlier this week that infection “figures are flashing at us like dashboard warnings in a passenger jet, and we must act now”.

The proposed measure, which may not cover the entire country, is being backed by Keir Starmer. He has attacked the prime minister’s handling of the crisis after newly published documents revealed that Downing Street rejected advice from government scientists to introduce an immediate circuit breaker lockdown in September.

So which countries have tried short shutdowns, and with how much success?

Cases up, locking down

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was one of the first global leaders to deploy a circuit breaker, following a rise in cases in the city-state in early April.

The lockdown was due to last for a month but was extended until 1 June after cases initially continued to increase. The restrictions forced “non-essential workplaces to close, schools to move to home-learning, and businesses selling food were only able to offer take-away services”, ITV News reports. 

According to the Singaporean Ministry of Trade, the measures are “estimated to have reduced 2020 GDP by 2.2%” - a decline that will do nothing to calm the nerves of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and other lockdown doves in Johnson’s cabinet.

But a string of other countries have shrugged off economic concerns to impose lockdowns.

A national shutdown in New Zealand that began on 26 March was extended by an extra week, continuing until late April, with all non-essential services halted and schools closed. Prime Minister Jacinda Arden said of the extension: “We considered that the longer we are in lockdown, the less likely it is we will need to go back.”

South Korea also deployed a circuit breaker in mid-August, after nine days of triple-digit increases that saw the national coronavirus caseload top 17,000. Under the rules, church gatherings, nightclubbing, and crowds at sports games were all banned.

More recently, Israel last month become the first country in the world to impose a second full national lockdown. It began on 18 September and was initially supposed to be lifted this week, but has been extended until at least Sunday.

Although Covid cases have been rising in Israel, critics view “the move as an attempt to stop weekly protests” against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over alleged corruption and his government’s handling of the pandemic, the BBC reports.

Naftali Bennett, leader of right-wing party Yamina, “tore into” Netanyahu after the lockdown was announced, The Times of Israel reports. “A lockdown isn’t an image of victory. A lockdown is an image of a failure. A terrible failure,” Bennett told fellow politicians in the Knesset.

Breaking the circuit

Singapore’s circuit breaker could be considered a success by most measures. By early to mid-May, “cases - excluding infections among migrant workers that have spiked sharply in recent weeks - dropped”, the Financial Times says. 

Likewise, South Korea was able to relax the restrictions in the East Asian nation within a few weeks, following a fall in new cases. 

The measures “worked in Asia because case numbers have been small - measured in dozens rather than the tens of thousands”, David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene, told The Telegraph

“They have well-drilled track and trace teams at the ready to hunt down cases the moment the switch is flicked,” he added. 

The New Zealand government also appears to have been vindicated by the results of their circuit-breaking extension. On 18 April, New Zealand recorded 13 cases, but the country did not have another day where more than ten were recorded until 12 August, The Independent reports.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has claimed that Israel’s lockdown has shown “preliminary signs of success”, although infection rates rose “from 4,764 new cases on 14 September to more than 11,000 on 23 September”, Sky News reports.

Judging by latest figures, however, the drastic measures are now paying off, with Israel recording a total of 17,019 new cases over the past week.

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