England will be in lockdown for at least another month – and it could be late Spring by the time pubs open their doors.
Boris Johnson wants schools to be the first thing to reopen from March 8, but the dates after that are shrouded in uncertainty.
Leaked reports – downplayed by No10 – have suggested England’s shops could reopen in April and pubs in May.
UK Hospitality have called for pubs and restaurants to reopen on April 1 – much earlier – in time for the Easter bank holiday weekend, as long as cases are still falling.
But the reality is no one knows exactly when lockdown can end because it depends on so many factors.
A plan will only be presented by the government in the week of February 22.
And some measures are likely to be with us long-term – with one report today claiming social distancing could stay all year.
So what are the factors that would allow us to ease lockdown more quickly, and what are the factors that would slow it down?
According to Sunday Times calculations, on current trajectories cases could drop to 8,000 a day by March 8.
That’s still higher than they were when SAGE demanded a ‘circuit-break’ lockdown in November.
Only in May 2021 would we reach the 600-odd daily cases we managed last July, when pubs reopened after the first lockdown.
That trajectory, though, will be affected by all sorts of things that could dramatically change our dealings with the disease.
The government is using four conditions before easing the lockdown:
- A new variant isn’t causing difficulties
- The vaccination programme is working
- Hospitalisations are coming down
- Deaths are coming down.
We can be pretty sure the vaccine will bring down deaths, because the aim is to give first doses to the 88% of people most likely to die by February 15. But that will take time, and as we know, younger healthy people die of Covid-19 too.
We also know there are no “fixed thresholds” for these four factors – it’s the general progress and direction of travel that will matter.
So with that in mind, here are three things that would help improve the odds of easing lockdown – and three things that would make those odds worse.
3 things that would help us ease lockdown
If the vaccine reduces transmission
So far we know getting a vaccine – even just the first dose – makes you much less likely to get sick and die of Covid.
What we don’t know, and the government are still looking at, is whether it prevents you passing it on to other people.
Government advisors believe it’s almost certain there will be some kind of cut to transmission, they just don’t know how much.
If the vaccine has a dramatic impact on people transmitting the virus, then it will help drive down case numbers more quickly.
It’d mean a 75-year-old gran meeting her 45-year-old daughter wouldn’t just be protected herself; the daughter would be safer too.
Dr Susan Hopkins, Incident Director for COVID-19 at Public Health England, said cases are declining in the over-70s and over-80s.
She’s looking closely to work out if that’s linked to the vaccine – and we should have some idea “over the next two weeks”.
She told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “It’s a bit early to say whether those declines are directly related to the vaccine.
“What we’d like to see is a divergence in the case rates in the over-70s and over-80s who’ve been vaccinated from the younger age groups, to show they’re declining faster.
“We’ve now hit 80% of the over-80s being vaccinated and really fast numbers climbing in the under-80 age group as well.
“So we expect over the next two weeks to start seeing that impact of that vaccine in that age group, and also an impact on hospitalisation.”
If schools reopen without driving cases up
Schools will be the first bit of lockdown to end – so will be crucial to showing whether other ‘unlocking’ should go ahead or wait longer.
Ministers say schools themselves are safe for pupils, but they can act as a “vector” to spread Covid in the wider community.
That means while it’s rare for kids to get seriously ill, they can take the virus home to their families without showing symptoms.
But the data on exactly how much this happens, and how much it’s driven in the classroom itself, is mixed and disputed.
A Department for Education study in December, presented to SAGE, concluded secondary schools have “an effect” on increasing the spread of the virus amongst children – “but we cannot tell how large this effect is, nor can we tell what the impact of it is (if any) on the wider community”.
Meanwhile a Public Health England study claimed infection rates remained “very low” in primary schools after they reopened in September 2020.
If, as government advisors hope, there is no big leap in cases after schools reopen it will help clear the way to other reopenings. But if cases start rising they will have to rethink.
If warmer weather helps cases fall in Spring
This winter has felt so long, it’s easy to forget the effect the seasons can have on coronavirus.
The fact we got down below 600 cases a day in July 2020 wasn’t just due to the long lockdown – Spring helped too.
It’s now well-established that good ventilation, either being outdoors or opening a window, makes the virus less likely to spread. This is something that happens less in schools, workplaces and homes in winter.
Heat and light itself can even have an impact, though it’s less significant. A paper by a SAGE subgroup on October 21 said winter conditions “increase viral persistence on outdoor surfaces” and in unheated indoor spaces, due to the cold and low UV light.
SAGE member Graham Medley said on January 6: “We’re very hopeful now that this virus is seasonal so that it will reduce once the spring and summer comes. Then that gives us an additional chance to be able to prepare and in particular to get vaccination done for everybody.” Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said in the same week: “Winter will benefit the virus.”
While Britain’s gloomy weather suggests we won’t get much joy until at least April, it could be one factor that drives cases down.
3 things that would make easing lockdown harder
If new variants get into the UK
One reason for Britain’s Christmas explosion in cases was the new variant which began in Kent.
Scientists believe it is more transmissible than ‘original’ Covid and it may be more deadly – around a 30% rise in men aged 60.
So far, early studies have suggested that various Covid vaccines will work fairly well against the Kent variant.
But scientists are worried about South African and Brazilian variants, as well as potential future variants that could resist a vaccine.
Early trials for one yet-to-be-approved vaccine, Novavax, estimated it had 49% efficacy in South Africa compared to 89% in the UK.
Dr Susan Hopkins of PHE insisted this was still “reassuring news” telling the BBC: “I expect that all of the vaccines will have similar levels of effectiveness against [strains] like the South African variant.”
But if vaccines have to be tweaked or are less effective against new strains, it could slow down the fall in cases and deaths if those strains become common in the UK.
Ministers are also accused of dragging their feet over tightening up the border. Brits returning from Brazil and South Africa will have to quarantine in hotels, rather than in their own homes, but there’s still no start date for the policy.
If we unlock too quickly at first
When lockdown was eased in July, Boris Johnson steamed ahead by reopening pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and more on the same day.
Scientists are warning we must go in two-week intervals to check that unlockings are not driving cases up.
If we go too fast, or people are given the impression it’s a free-for-all and break the rules, we could end up with cases and deaths rising and our “unlockdown” going into reverse.
Dr Susan Hopkins of PHE warned the BBC: “We have to relax things really quite slowly so that if cases start to increase, we can clamp down quite fast.
“The NHS is going to be under pressure until the end of March, as normal in winter, but even more so with the amount of inpatients they still have with Covid-19.
“Any releases that we have will have to happen very slowly, very cautiously, watching and waiting as we go with a two-week period to watch and see the impact of that relaxation. Because it takes that to see what’s happening in the population.”
If cases aren’t actually falling like we think they are
Overall there are many signs that cases are coming down, and hospitalisations and deaths are plateauing, in the national lockdown.
The rolling average of confirmed new daily cases in the UK has dipped from 61,237 on New Year’s Day to 29,236 by January 22.
That’s a huge relief to government scientists. They had feared even a full lockdown might not be enough to pull the R number below 1 thanks to the new, faster-spreading variant of Covid-19.
But what if cases aren’t falling as fast as we think they are? A couple of studies have given cause for concern.
The ONS infection survey, which estimates cases across England’s whole community not just people who test positive, suggested 1 in 55 people had the virus in the week to January 23. That was almost exactly the same as the week before.
And last week the largest study of its kind, Imperial College’s REACT study, suggested cases may have “flatlined” from January 6-22 despite the lockdown.
Scientists and politicians will be hoping these studies are already out of date and, now that we’re almost a month deep into lockdown, it is helping bring cases down. But it’s too early to know for sure.