Friday 16 October 2020 4:53 am

The Circuit Breakers should be honest about what they’re asking for: lockdown until Christmas and beyond

“Circuit breaker lockdown”: sounds cool, doesn’t it?

Edgy, effective, high-tech. Circuits involve electricity, electricity is physics, so a circuit breaker must be about science — the kind of science that makes light bulbs flash and powers cutting-edge revolutions that can save a nation from ruin.

With pressure building for the government to impose this two-week circuit breaker — most recently from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, who changed his mind this week — even as vast swathes of the country are plunged into harsher “local” restrictions, it’s worth taking a careful look at what such a policy actually means.

Read more: We’re heading from London lockdown to national breakdown

The term started getting thrown around in September, as coronavirus cases began to creep up. According to documents from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), “the circuit breaker can be thought of as a way to reduce R to below 1 and reset the incidence of disease to a lower measure”. A 14-day return to strict rules would, it advised, put the epidemic back 28 days.

The government disregarded the advice, and compromised with the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants. For a while there was respite, as it looked like infection rates were falling, but this proved to be a blip caused by an Excel error, with 16,000 cases going unreported. 

Now the “traffic light” tier system has been introduced, but there is little confidence outside Downing Street that this will be effective in driving the sharp fall in infections that the public wants to see. Boris Johnson has reportedly acknowledged privately that the national “circuit breaker” is very much on the table.

To hear proponents talk, it sounds appealing. Two weeks of harsh restrictions, conveniently timed around the half-term holiday so children don’t miss too much school, to “reset” the country’s infection rate and put us all on a firmer setting as we head into winter. Who could possibly argue against that?

Alas, anyone who thinks there is a simple, consequence-free response to Covid-19 has spent the last seven months in a Zoom-induced coma.

For a start, the impact of restrictions will be limited by public compliance. Data showing that only a fraction of those required to self-isolate are actually doing so reveals that this compliance is wavering. While businesses will be ordered to shut their doors (despite having invested heavily in making their properties Covid-secure), the assumption that people will meekly accept further curbs on their liberty and rigidly follow the rules is a questionable one.

But more fundamentally, we should recognise outright that “circuit breaker” is a sanitised, focus-grouped term for what will inevitably become Lockdown 2.0. 

Any pretence that this will be a short-term measure should be cast aside. Quite simply, two weeks is not enough time for any improvements in the infection rate to show up in the data. We know from the experience of the last year that it takes over a week for the impact of new measures to register in the infection figures (longer, given how long it is currently taking for test results to be processed), and a further two before they affect the death statistics. 

Even if the new restrictions (effectively, closing everything apart from schools and offices) work exactly as planned, their effect would not be recorded within the lockdown period. SAGE itself acknowledges this. In its recommendations for such a lockdown, it states: “time lag from infection to deaths means reduction in deaths is likely to start after the circuit breaker ends”.

Given the fevered political climate, the notion that the government could relax measures after two weeks when deaths were still rising is ludicrous. Ministers would be hammered by the opposition, the press, and the public, despite acting in accordance with SAGE.

Lockdowns, as we have seen, are harder to get out of than they are to impose. The first lockdown was initially introduced for three weeks, with the policy to be regularly reviewed and renewed. Depending on how you define the “end of lockdown”, it lasted around three months. 

The country paid a staggering economic and social cost to bring the R number down below 1. The promise, both implied and explicit, was that the government would use this time to implement a “world-beating” Test and Trace system that would enable restrictions to ease without increasing infection rates.

Regardless of your political affiliation, there can be no doubt that such an effort has spectacularly failed. The proportion of Covid contacts being reached by Dido Harding’s Test and Trace service stands at a record low this week, at 62.6 per cent. The system is barely being mentioned in the government’s rhetoric about its Covid strategy.

If getting an adequate Test and Trace system up and running over the summer proved impossible, why should we believe that it can be done in two weeks, or even 28 days?

And if it can’t, what is the exit strategy of the circuit breaker?

The harsh truth is there isn’t one, for this is no silver bullet. When the so-called circuit breaker is introduced (for it is almost inevitable now that it will be), it will be heralded as a short, sharp fix. But as its proposed end-point looms, neither the infection situation nor the testing regime will have changed sufficiently for the government to lift it. 

While concessions may be made this time to allow children to stay in school, the restrictions will remain, likely well into winter as the impact of flu season hits the Covid death statistics. More businesses will go under, national and individual debt will continue to spiral as people lose their jobs and their homes, and the fraying mental health of the nation will deteriorate into full-scale societal breakdown as the light at the end of the lockdown tunnel edges further and further away.

Anyone pushing this policy should admit the pain it will cause. They should also be able to articulate what comes next. A new year circuit break? Followed by another just as the days get longer? This isn’t a coherent strategy, and there’s a very limited number of times the government can ask us all for “one more push” to get the virus under control. So, if more lockdowns are to come, the Prime Minister owes it to the country to explain how he’ll use the time it buys him and what, exactly, the longer-term strategy is.

As for the rest of us, don’t be naive — the coming lockdown will be anything but temporary. The Circuit Breakers should be honest about what they’re asking for: lockdown until Christmas and beyond, to hell with the consequences.

Read more: London lockdown: Will the City’s small businesses survive new restrictions?

Main image credit: Getty

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.