ENTERTAINMENT

With Covid infections doubling every week … which is best for the UK, asks BEN SPENCER


It's the UK debate. Covid infections are doubling every week and experts believe the death toll will rise soon. Should ministers act quickly to stop a second wave or hold back to prevent further damage to the economy? With no easy options, these are some of the options they are considering.

DO NOTHING

Just continue with the current restrictions until spring.

On the first day after the strict coronavirus curfew was introduced, Newcastle revelers enjoy drinks

PROS: The March lockdown successfully contained infections but had a devastating impact on businesses, education and the NHS. Boris Johnson is desperate to avoid repetition. There is a strong argument that the need for action is nowhere near as urgent as it was in spring. We now know that the virus only affects the elderly. Doctors can treat it much better and they now have effective drugs. And while our test system isn't what it should be, the capacity is 25 times larger than it was in March. Mortality rates are tiny right now – suicides, flu and pneumonia claim far more lives than the dreaded coronavirus.

Cons: It is clear that Covid is spiraling out of control in France, Spain and the US. If the UK doesn't do something, it can go the same way – with a wave of deaths as infections spread from youth to vulnerable groups.

CHANCE OF THIS HAPPENING: 1/5

LOCAL LOCKDOWNS

Local restrictions already in place across much of the UK with 13 million people could be expanded if outbreaks flare up.

PROS: Targeted, proportionate restrictions in virus hotspots slow down the spread and protect the rest of the country. This was successfully done in Leicester over the summer, with prices falling quickly.

Cons: Such specific measures rely on an effective testing and tracing program – and at the moment the system is not up to date. Critics also point out that rates have actually continued to rise in many parts of the Northwest that have been restricted for weeks are. And with the local lockdown extended to the northeast and Lancashire, it now affects more than 13 million people. Since the lives of so many British citizens have been cut short, this is arguably just a national lockdown imposed by secrecy. Local actions are also controversial – national unity will be badly hit if only half the country is allowed to celebrate Christmas with the family.

CHANCE OF THIS HAPPENING: 4/5

SHIELDING

Most young people are hardly affected by Covid. So a logical solution is to shield older people.

Most young people are hardly affected by Covid. So a logical solution is to shield older people

Most young people are hardly affected by Covid. So a logical solution is to shield older people

PROS: This could protect the most vulnerable while also allowing the rest of the population to keep the economy going. According to reports, the government already has tentative plans to assign a "risk assessment" to anyone over 50.

Cons: A raw version was used during the initial lockdown, asking 2.2 million people with cancer, asthma, and other conditions to stay inside. This scheme was fraught with problems – in fact, many of those asked to protect were not particularly vulnerable. Any new system would have to be far more targeted. But it would depend heavily on age – by far the biggest risk factor for Covid. This is rejected by many retirees who see themselves as perfectly healthy. It is also impossible to effectively shield those who need it most – nursing home residents who need contact with caregivers.

CHANCE OF THIS HAPPENING: 4/5

BLOCKING HOUR

Curfews for bar and restaurant opening have already been used in many areas – and could be rolled out nationwide.

PROS: The surge in infection rates this summer was due to young people gathering in pubs, homes and at illegal raves. Curfews, which are being tried out in Bolton and other areas, are designed to prevent this from happening by closing restaurants and pubs at 10 p.m. This is arguably a proportionate response – it is better to ask the pubs to close an hour or two earlier than to force them to close completely.

Cons: It is clearly harmful to the hospitality industry and is widely viewed as a deterrent restriction on personal freedoms. Curfews can only do so much. After all, the majority of the population is not on the road after 10 p.m.

CHANCE OF THIS HAPPENING: 4/5

CIRCUIT BREAK

This is the option that will be considered most carefully. Ministers hope a brief embargo of just two weeks will stop the pattern of infections and reinfections that are driving the cases high.

PROS: If people fail to meet and interact, the virus cannot be transmitted between them, the chain of transmission is broken, and infection rates no longer rise. If done quickly, it can nip the problem in the bud before rates soar to dangerous levels. And when imposed over the October half-year, it will have a limited impact on children's education. Scientists hope that such a measure will also give room to breathe so that the test program gets back on track. And if the infection rates drop enough, it can even end up around Christmas.

Cons: Scientists fear cases will pick up again once restrictions are lifted. This increases the country's prospect of an on-off lockdown pattern until a vaccine becomes available. Two weeks just might not be long enough – which means restrictions drag on and on, leading to a complete lockdown.

CHANCE OF THIS HAPPENING: 4/5

NATIONAL LOCKDOWN

A return to spring-style nationwide measures that resulted in most people being forced to work from home, with schools, non-essential shops and workplaces closed.

A return to spring-style nationwide measures would have most people work from home as venues such as pubs are closed

A return to spring-style nationwide measures would have most people work from home as venues such as pubs are closed

PROS: When Covid infections spiral out of control and coincide with a bad winter flu season, the death toll can be huge. Mr Johnson might have no choice but to order another lockdown. There are also ways to mitigate the blow – especially keeping schools open. Many scholars now believe that the last time schools closed was unnecessary. Children are not at risk from the virus, but their education and mental health have been immeasurably damaged by being kept at home. It also made it difficult for parents to work.

Cons: This is the "nuclear" option the Prime Minister does not want to take, an extreme that even the darkest scholars are not currently advocating. With the onset of “crisis fatigue” it could also be much more difficult for him to convince people to follow the rules a second time. And even a scaled-down version of national restrictions would do more harm than good. The economy is already below the waterline – a return to lockdown could sink it completely.

CHANCE OF THIS HAPPENING: 2/5