On September 21st, the UK Government’s Emergency Science Advisory Group (Sage) published a document stating: a national circuit breaker interlock contain the steadily increasing cases of COVID.
The Sage scientists warned that “failure to address the cases will now lead to a very large epidemic with catastrophic consequences in terms of direct COVID deaths and the ability of health care providers to meet the needs”.
Instead of heeding the warnings of their own scientists, the government instead demanded the edge views of “experts” who campaigned to control the effects of the virus with less restrictive measures while shielding the most vulnerable people in society.
The result was that the government tried to limit the effects of the disease through a number of light-touch restrictions, including the original three-tier system introduced in mid-October.
By the end of October, as part of these measures, the virus had spread so widely that the situation in the UK had become unsustainable. A national lockdown to control the spread of the virus became inevitable. There was news of these impending restrictions leaked to the press almost a week before the ban took effect.
Let a leak arise
At that time the Chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, John Apter, suggested that The leak would create confusion and “encourage some to make the most of their time before locking”. But was it really like that?
A new studytries to answer this question. Case numbers from 315 municipalities were examined in the analysis. The publicly available data shows that in the ten days leading up to the national lockdown, cases stagnated. This was followed by a sharp spike in the first week of the lockdown to its peak on November 12th. The cases subsequently reported went back almost to the end of the lockdown in early December.
Photo credit: Kit Yates, University of Bath, and Independent SAGE.
From the case data, the authors calculated a reproduction number (commonly referred to as R – the average number of people to whom an infected person passes the disease on during their period of infection). Their calculations seemed to suggest that although all three tiers decreased the reproduction count from Oct. 20, they increased again in the five days prior to the implementation of the lock at levels 1 and 2. The authors conclude that the lockdown plans were previously unsealed. Their implementation indirectly led to an increase in infections.
Far from being final
While it’s tempting to believe that the leak was the sole cause of the spike in infections at the start of the lockdown, that explanation is too simple. The evidence presented by the authors is far from definitive. The official government announcement was made on Saturday after leaks on Friday night, meaning the leak itself had limited impact (although it is unclear how much the government’s announcement timing was affected by the leak). Several other influences may also have played a role in the weeks leading up to the lockdown.
To understand the peak in cases during lockdown, we should consider the reasons for the plateau in cases in the fourteen days prior to lockdown. In part, this could be due to Tier 3 stalling cases in the worst hit areas. Sure there was Evidence suggesting Tier 3 brought down the number of cases on Merseyside before the lock was initiated. The stagnation in the cases could also be due to a change in behavior as people saw the increase in hospital stays and deaths in the media and decided to limit their intermingling.
Perhaps the most compelling argument to explain the flattening of cases is the staggered half-time break. Sage has suggested this on many occasions Schools make a major contribution to the reproduction rate. Roughly speaking, keep in mind that it takes between five and ten days for people to become infected and for their positive tests to be reported. A flattening in reported cases between October 23 and November 7 seems to coincide well with the UK’s staggered halftime, October 17-31. At least part of the surge in reported cases that occurred on November 12 could then be explained by returns from schools in the three days before the lockdown was carried out.
In reality, a combination of factors likely led to a surge in cases during the second lockdown: the return of schools, the leakage of government plans, and the five-day break between the official announcement and the lockdown itself.
With just over 24 hours between the announcement and its implementation, and with most of the country already under relatively tight restrictions, we can hope that a behavioral surge in cases can be avoided when the UK goes through its third national lockdown.