Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the UK is “now experiencing a second wave” of Covid-19.
Expanding “local” restrictions means that more than 13 million people (a fifth of the UK population) suffer additional restrictions on their lives.
And the rise in cases is not just limited to hotspots, it is spreading across the UK. Local restrictions do not suppress the virus that is spreading outside of those areas.
Against this background, the government decides what to do next. One idea is a “circuit break” – a short, severe period of tight restrictions for everyone to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
So why might a circuit breaker be required and what can it achieve?
Let’s do some rough math.
Take 6,000 cases a day, double them every week – as the Emergencies Scientific Advisory Group (Sage) suggests – and by mid-October you have more than 100,000 infections per day like we did at the peak.
This is not complex disease modeling, it is not written in stone and actions such as the “base of six” should slow the spread of the disease.
But this small amount gives an idea of how quickly a small problem can become a huge problem.
The circuit breaker is all about trying to change this lane.
Dr. Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick told me, “The evidence that hospitalization is increasing, it’s a source of anxiety and anxiety is what happens if we don’t do something.”
It is part of the government group of scientists concerned with modeling disease, called SPI-M, which has been discussing circuit breakers this week.
Dr. Tildesley added, “To be completely honest, none of us want this, but we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
“However, with a short-term orbiting shutdown, you can buy some time.”
A tighter set of restrictions should result in cases falling rather than rising, but how low they are is uncertain and will depend on how severe the restrictions are.
It is suggested that schools and workplaces remain open, but the hospitality sector (bars and restaurants) will take a hit. This is not Lock 2.0.
Dr Adam Kucharsky, another member of SPI-M and a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said.
When virus levels are low, it is easier to detect outbreaks and use high-precision measures, less troublesome than patriotic ones, to limit the spread of Covid-19.
“With the increase in cases and hospitalizations, there is less information about what the outbreak is doing as Test and Trace cannot fully capture it, and you do not know where the outbreak is,” Dr Kocharsky told the BBC.
“That’s the difference. The options drop dramatically as the issues rise.”
Circuit dividers have been used in other countries. The temporary shutdown in New Zealand can be seen as a circuit break that gives contact tracers the time needed to weather the outbreak.
In the UK, the break may buy time to improve the embattled government testing and tracking program, which is already struggling with current levels of coronavirus.
The problem is, however, that once the circuit is over, cases will start to rise again.
“You may find yourself in a cycle of short-term lockdown until you have an exit strategy like a vaccine or herd immunity,” says Dr. Tildsley.
Remember it’s only September.
Spring, when the coronavirus is easy to contain and we might have a vaccine, is still a long way off.
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