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‘Circuit break’: Are we heading towards a second national lockdown?

By Tom Pilgrim, PA
·4-min read

Amid a rise in coronavirus cases in England, reports have emerged that the Government is considering a return to tighter national lockdown measures.

Under a so-called “circuit break”, extra restrictions could be imposed to slow the spread of Covid-19 as the winter months approach.

But what is being proposed and how will it affect the public? Here are some answers to a few key questions:

What is meant by a circuit break?

Coronavirus – Thu Sep 17, 2020
People queue up outside a walk through coronavirus testing centre on Marlborough Road in Southampton, amid a surge in demand for tests (Andrew Matthews/PA)

As with an electrical circuit, the terminology suggests a protective measure designed to stop a system being overwhelmed.

The long-term fear of politicians, scientists and health workers is that a surge in coronavirus could over-burden the NHS, particularly if a potential second wave strikes in winter.

The most recent figures point to a rise in Covid-19 cases in England at the same time that the NHS Test and Trace system is struggling to cope with demand for testing.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the latest data showed hospital admissions are now doubling every eight days, amid warnings that deaths will rise in the coming weeks.

What could new measures look like?

Closed pubs
Pubs and restaurants could be subject to extra restrictions, according to reports (Dominic Lipinksi/PA)

Face covering requirements and the “rule of six” limit on social gatherings are examples of existing national rules, so any extra measures will be on top of these.

According to the BBC, possible new measures being discussed include asking some hospitality businesses to close, or limiting the opening hours of pubs and restaurants.

The hospitality sector has already been subject to targeted measures under a local lockdown in areas across the north-east of England, with food and drink restricted to table service only and venues required to close between 10pm in 5am.

Similarly in Bolton, which has the highest number of cases in the country, measures were brought in last week restricting restaurants, cafes, bars and pubs to takeaway only, and requiring all hospitality venues to close between 10pm and 5am.

When will this happen and how long could it last?

Schools go back in England
Reports suggest a national lockdown could be timed to avoid disrupting children’s education (Danny Lawson/PA)

No decisions are said to have been made, but according to the BBC new measures could last “a few weeks”, while the Financial Times (FT) reported a “two-week” national lockdown is being proposed by scientists.

The FT said the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have suggested a national lockdown could coincide with schools’ October half term.

This would help limit any disruption to children’s education which has already been affected by the pandemic.

Could this be a return to full national lockdown?

Coronavirus – Wed Sep 16, 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned of the economic impact of a second national lockdown (House of Commons/PA)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is said to be very reluctant to place the country under the kind of tight restrictions imposed on the country back in March.

Earlier this week, Mr Johnson described the potential impact of a second national lockdown on the economy as “disastrous”.

A key consideration for the Government is balancing the health impacts of a potential second wave of Covid-19 and protecting the economy.

But cases are growing: a total of 18,371 new people tested positive for Covid-19 in England in the week to September 9, a rise of 75% in positive cases on the previous week.

Earlier this week, Mr Johnson said the disease was spreading from the young to the more vulnerable elderly, with the rate of cases among the over-80s doubling in just days – and warned that would “lead to mortality”.

How many people could be affected by any new measures?

According to the reports, discussions are focusing on “national” lockdown measures.

Coronavirus restrictions are the responsibility of the different nations of the UK – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – with each country implementing slightly differing measures.

Many rules, such as compulsory face coverings on transport, already exist across the UK.

Alongside existing national restrictions, some 10 million people in England are already under some form of further local lockdown measures.

What is the Government saying?

Responding to questions from the media on Friday, Mr Hancock did not rule out a second national lockdown, but indicated the Government’s preference for “local action”.

He said national measures were the “last line of defence” against coronavirus, with the Government “vigilantly” monitoring the rising number of cases.

Mr Hancock said it was “absolutely critical” people followed existing rules and self-isolate if they test positive.

He added: “We want to avoid a national lockdown but we’re prepared to do it, if we need to.”