In Depth

Coronavirus: will the UK end up on lockdown?

UK set to move to ‘delay’ phase of government’s four-part emergency response plan

Boris Johnson is set to step up the UK’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, moving the country to the “delay” phase.

The next stage in the government’s four-part emergency response plan concentrates on measures aimed at delaying, rather than containing, the spread of infection.

The expected shift in tactics comes as the World Health Organization officially labels the outbreak a “pandemic” - meaning the virus is spreading in multiple countries at once.

Donald Trump has banned all travel to the US from 26 European countries, although the UK and Ireland are currently exempt.

And the Italian government has extended its nationwide lockdown by forcing all shops to close other than supermarkets, food stores and pharmacies. So could the UK follow suit with a countrywide quarantine?

What might a lockdown entail?

“Lockdown” refers to the implementation of a “cordon sanitaire”, a geographical barrier put in place to stall the spread of disease.

China, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea are among a number of countries that have introduced forms of lockdown in response to the coronavirus outbreak, with policies including limits on public gatherings.

In Europe, the whole of Italy has been declared a “red zone”. “Public gatherings are banned and people can travel to, from and within Italy only if such movement is deemed necessary for work or to deal with emergencies,” reports The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, the US travel ban has fuelled speculation about what other steps President Trump should be taking to curb the spread of the virus there.

Actions such as “suspending public transport, limiting public gatherings, preparing their healthcare system, testing significant numbers - those are all things we should be doing in the United States”, says Thomas Bollyky, director of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Health Program.

A full lockdown in the UK would probably include school and university closures, all workers encouraged or even mandated to work from home, the cancellation of all public events, and the closure of many shops and other public spaces.

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Do they work?

Expert opinion suggests that the effectiveness of lockdown measures depends on how and when they are implemented.

A new study outlined in a paper in the journal Science applied disease transmission modelling to China’s travel ban in and out of Wuhan city, the epicentre of the outbreak. The researchers discovered that the restrictions delayed the spread of the virus by only three to five days - but pointed out that by the time the ban was introduced, cases had already been confirmed in other areas of mainland China.

However, the study also found that the ban slowed the international spread of the virus by a matter of weeks, giving other countries a chance to prepare.

Despite such benefits, some experts believe the Chinese lockdown has had too great a cost. 

“Real questions need to be asked about what impact the lockdown had on limiting supplies and healthcare workers, inciting panic, overburdening hospitals, [and] increasing transmissions by concentrating people into areas,” Alexandra Phelan, a global health lawyer at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, told The Washington Post.

Some alternatives to lockdowns have been shown to be as - or more - effective. Singapore has opted instead to use sophisticated virus tracking and surveillance methods to follow the virus and see who has come into contact with infected people.

But most other countries are bigger than Singapore and have less developed surveillance and tracking infrastructure.

A Harvard University study published last month found that the world’s ability to detect imported cases was only 38% of that in Singapore. If other nations had the testing and tracing capacity of Singapore, around 2.8 times more cases would be diagnosed, the researchers estimated.

On the other hand, while the authorities in Singapore are ready to robustly enforce their measures to tackle the outbreak - including prosecuting an infected Chinese couple for lying about their travel history - other countries may prefer to rely on other methods.

What may happen in the UK?

The UK is currently in the first phase of the government’s four-part plan, which sets out a strategy to “contain, delay, research and mitigate”.

If or when the UK moves to the “delay” phase, “social distancing” measures will be introduced, such as restrictions on large public gatherings.

Anyone who shows even mild symptoms of a possible coronavirus infection will be asked to self-isolate.

But the “most drastic” measures are likely be held back for deployment just before the peak of the UK’s cases, according to the BBC’s health correspondent Nick Triggle, who says the focus of the “delay” stage “is expected to be how the vulnerable can be protected - the elderly and those with underlying health conditions”.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told the BBC’s Today programme this morning that the government was “looking at interventions that provide very high clinical benefit and minimise the social impact”.

The government’s official coronavirus response plan notes that “in the 2009 ‘swine flu’ pandemic, school holidays significantly slowed transmission of the virus”.

“Action that would be considered could include population distancing strategies (such as school closures, encouraging greater home working, reducing the number of large scale gatherings) to slow the spread of the disease throughout the population,” says the government.

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