Circuit-breaker lockdown: What does it mean and when could it happen?

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Pressure is growing on the Government to impose a short-term circuit-breaker lockdown in England in a bid to get rising coronavirus infections under control.

Some scientists have warned the newly-announced three tier local alert system does not go far enough, and only universal measures have any chance of curbing the second wave of the virus.

But what will this mean for our daily lives, how long could a circuit-breaker lockdown last, and where is the proof it will work?

– What is a circuit-breaker?

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Pressure is growing on the Government to impose a short-term circuit-breaker lockdown in EnglandPressure is growing on the Government to impose a short-term circuit-breaker lockdown in England
Pressure is growing on the Government to impose a short-term circuit-breaker lockdown in England

An actual circuit-breaker is an automatic switch installed in an electrical circuit that flips and breaks the flow of electricity when there is a power surge or short-circuit, preventing fire and other damage.

A circuit-breaker lockdown would therefore see Britons sever almost all contact with people outside their own household by shutting non-essential businesses and cutting social interactions.

– How long could it last?

A circuit-breaker, if imposed, would probably last a maximum of two to three weeks.

The idea is to interrupt the flow of the virus and allow time for a longer term plan to be put in place, before cases overload the NHS.

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Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned last week that prevention is better than cure.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s always easier to reduce an outbreak at the earlier stage than to let it run and then try to reduce it at a later stage.”

– When is a circuit breaker likely to be imposed?

The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) – which provides advice to the Department of Health and Social Care – recommends a short, sharp lockdown is imposed in England from October 24.

The date coincides with school half-term, and would minimise disruption to education.

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But in a paper published on Wednesday, it said: “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.”

– What is the evidence?

SPI-M modelling suggests coronavirus deaths for the rest of the year could be reduced from 19,900 to 12,100 if a circuit-breaker is imposed, with hospital admissions cut from 132,400 to 66,500.

If schools and shops remain open, the death toll could be cut to 15,600, it found.

– Who is in favour of a circuit-breaker lockdown?

It emerged on Tuesday that members of Sage have reportedly been pushing for such a lockdown for the last three weeks, but the Government has dismissed the idea.

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has now come out in support of a circuit-breaker, saying it would prevent a “sleepwalk into a long and bleak winter”.

His intervention provoked a bitter backlash from the Government, with a “senior source” branding him a “shameless opportunist”.

But the public seem to be of the same mind as the Labour leader – 54% of people surveyed by YouGov on Tuesday said they feel the Government should have introduced a national lockdown in September, while just 28% of the 4,222 adults polled disagreed.

– Has it worked anywhere else?

Other countries have tried the circuit-breaker approach with differing levels of success.

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Israel is expected to emerge from a national lockdown this week – initially imposed to cover the Jewish new year celebrations – after a traffic-light system similar to England’s tiers plan failed to get infection rates under control.

The Israeli government said there are some “preliminary signs of success”, although infection rates continues to rise – from 4,764 new cases on September 14 to more than 11,000 on September 23.

The most recent figures show 3,538 new cases on October 12.

New Zealand’s month-long lockdown imposed on March 26 rapidly brought cases under control and the country has been praised for the efficacy of its response.

On April 18, New Zealand recorded 13 new cases but did not have another day in double digits until August 12, and so far has recorded just 25 Covid-19 deaths.

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Scientists warn success depends on the public’s willingness to adhere to any new rules.

– Who has gone for the circuit-break option in the UK?

Northern Ireland is the first devolved administration to agree to a new national lockdown, with most measures coming into force on Friday.

Pubs and restaurants will close for four weeks, with the exception of takeaways and deliveries, while schools will close on Monday for two weeks – one of which will cover the half-term Halloween break.

It stops short of the full lockdown imposed in March, but they are the toughest measures to be introduced in any of the UK’s four countries so far.

Wales is preparing to follow suit, First Minister Mark Drakeford said on Wednesday.

He told Sky News his Government is “very actively talking about and preparing for” a circuit-breaker lockdown.