Will Britain be forced into October firebreak lockdown?

The big unknown is how stretched the National Health Service will be at schools' half-term

The UK's economy has reopened but there are Covid concerns as school terms start. EPA
Powered by automated translation

The prospect of another lockdown in the UK has been raised, with the suggestion of an October "firebreak" period.

The government has admitted some contingency plans exist but not that a firebreak is being considered.

It added that contingency plans would “only be reintroduced as a last resort”.

Why might an October firebreak be needed?

The October firebreak was first reported in i newspaper as an idea under consideration for half-term in England, which starts on October 22. It said an unnamed member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned a “precautionary break” could be introduced.

It could extend the school half-term holiday to two weeks as a circuit breaker if there is an exploding epidemic as the economy reopens.

Covid restrictions and lockdown measures have previously been considered based on new cases and hospital admissions, along with the number of people vaccinated, infection rates and other assessments of an outbreak.

There have been rising case numbers since most restrictions were lifted on July 19. A similar rise is expected after schools opened and pupils in England returned to classes on Monday.

The big unknown is over how stretched the National Health Service will be at half-term.

What are the Covid numbers?

At first glance, cases appear worrying.

There were more than 300 Covid cases per 100,000 among five to 15-year-olds in the week ended August 28, compares with less than 10 per 100,000 a year ago.

In the last two weeks, new hospital cases have been consistently above 900 a day, but while climbing, that is still far below the January 2021 peak.

A total of 668 deaths registered in the week ended August 27 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate, the highest number since 719 deaths were registered in the week to March 26.

The big difference is the vaccination numbers. A year ago, no one was vaccinated.

Almost 80 per cent of adults have been fully vaccinated, hopefully leading to fewer new cases.

About 89 per cent have had a first dose and a third round of injections is being planned for vulnerable groups.

Has a firebreak like this worked in the UK?

Wales had a two-week circuit breaker lockdown which was less than successful.

In the week after the firebreak ended on November 9, 2020, the R number representing the reproduction rate of Covid-19 rose from 0.8 to 1.1.

An estimated 25,600 people in Wales were infected in the week to December 4, a 7,500 rise from the previous week.

Despite the Welsh efforts, it joined a new UK-wide lockdown on November 9.

What did the vaccines minister say?

Interest in the possibility of an October lockdown was piqued when Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi used a lot of words to explain the state of the vaccine programme without confirming or denying the possibility of a firebreak — beyond saying he had not seen any plans.

“So the vaccines have actually allowed us to reach an equilibrium with the virus in the sense that they have prevented over 100,000 deaths, many, many millions of infections and of course hospitalisations as well,” he said.

“The upwards pressure on infections is as, obviously, we have reopened the economy to pretty much as close to normal as you can get.

“So the booster programme that we have had interim advice from the JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] on is my absolute priority.

“That will protect the most vulnerable to serious infection - that will absolutely help us to transition the virus from pandemic to endemic status.

“The important thing is that we get that right, because I think if we do that well, we can continue on this sort of one-way road towards sustaining the opening of the economy and, by next year hopefully, transitioning the virus from pandemic to endemic and dealing with it on an annual basis.”

What else is government saying?

The Department for Education and Boris Johnson’s spokesman both put out denials they were planning a lockdown, but Downing Street did admit there had been contingency planning.

“No, it is not true that the government is planning a lockdown or firebreak around the October half-term,” the PM's official spokesman said.

He said there were contingency plans for a range of scenarios.

“These kind of measures would only be reintroduced as a last resort to prevent unsustainable pressure on our NHS,” the spokesman said.

“I think we've been clear throughout that we will take action, and indeed we have done when necessary to protect our NHS,” he said.

And a Department for Education representative said: “It is not true that the government is planning a lockdown or firebreak around the October half term.”

Updated: September 07, 2021, 6:27 PM