Coronavirus circuit breaker would reduce deaths while allowing test and trace to 'regain control', study suggests

Alexandra Thompson
·4 mins read
Coronavirus pandemic, senior woman in self quarantine to avoid contagion of infection by virus covid-19. Stays home looking outdoor from the window. Prevention concept
A circuit breaker could leave people confined to their home, aside from essential trips. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Introducing a two-week period of “intense” coronavirus restrictions could curb the spread of infection, research suggests.

The UK is now firmly in a dreaded second wave, with cases increasingly exponentially across almost all regions.

In an effort to control the outbreak, Britons have been restricted to social gatherings of just six people, while pubs and restaurants not serving food are closed in Liverpool.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called for a two- to three-week “circuit breaker” lockdown in England to bring the infection rate under control. Critics have argued, however, that this would further damage the UK economy.

Read more: England among nations with highest death toll in first coronavirus wave

To better understand the benefits of such an approach, scientists from the University of Warwick carried out two statistical models.

Results suggest a “short, sharp” two-week breaker would lead to a fall in cases throughout the UK, followed by a decline in hospitalisations and deaths.

This could help reduce the pressure on the NHS as the UK moves into winter, while also allowing the much-criticised test and trace system to “regain control”, according to the scientists.

Doctor in protective gloves & workwear holding Testing Kit for the coronavirus test. The doctor is collecting nasal sample for a young lady with a sampling swab.
Coronavirus cases are rising exponentially throughout the UK. (Getty Images)

After the UK’s national lockdown was eased in mid-May, coronavirus cases have gradually crept up, gathering pace in the middle of August.

Local restrictions have generally been introduced at short notice with an “indeterminate length”.

These “greatly increase the negative impact” on the economy while “restricting freedoms”, according to the Warwick scientists.

Circuit breakers – “planned, limited duration periods of strict non-pharmaceutical interventions” – have been suggested to reduce case numbers before emergency measures are required.

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The government’s scientific advisers reportedly called for a short lockdown in England to halt the spread of the coronavirus in September.

They also warned that NHS Test and Trace was having a “marginal impact” that would “likely decline further” unless the system kept up with rising cases.

A technical glitch meant nearly 16,000 coronavirus incidences went unreported between 25 September and 2 October, delaying efforts to trace the contacts of people who tested positive.

Watch: What is long COVID?

To better understand the potential benefits of a circuit breaker, the Warwick scientists modelled how effective a two-week lockdown could be during October half-term, when school disruption would be minimised.

The results have been released preliminarily and are yet to appear in a peer-reviewed journal.

The scientists found circuit breakers are most effective when the reproduction (R) number of a virus is low. This is the number of people a patient statistically goes on to infect. For example, if the R is two, every patient is expected to pass the infection to two others.

Read more: Man tests positive for coronavirus twice

The coronavirus’s R number is more than one, meaning the outbreak is growing.

Nevertheless, an intense two-week lockdown could “offer a much needed brake on increasing infection when the growth rate is higher, potentially allowing other measures (such as contact tracing) to regain control”, according to the scientists.

They stressed a circuit breaker is not a lasting measure, but a “temporal reset, taking the level of infection back (in time) to a lower value”.

Reduced patient numbers may also allow “resource limited” measures like test and trace to “potentially have a greater impact”.

“We also consistently find the optimal time for a break is always now; there are no good epidemiological reasons to delay the break as this will simply push back any benefits until later, leaving more time for additional cases to accumulate,” wrote the scientists.

While they focused on the October half-term, the team added that an additional circuit breaker could also be effective during the Christmas break, “perhaps extending them for a week into 2021”, or spring half-term.

The scientists warned, however, that it is unclear how a circuit breaker may affect the economy and society at large.

After spending more than 200 days in lockdown, the public may also not adhere to tougher restrictions.

Action must also be taken to ensure the UK is not later hit by a third wave, added the scientists.

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