Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove has warned that strict new coronavirus restrictions in England may have to stay in place until March.
His comments came as England entered its third national lockdown with strict new controls, including closing schools to most students.
The restrictions were put in place to keep the NHS from becoming overwhelmed by a surge in new infections.
Wales has had level 4 restrictions since December 20th and people are supposed to stay home and avoid all but essential travel.
This is where the PA news agency takes a look at how we got here – and what steps need to be taken to get out of the lockdown.
- 1 Why was another ban introduced in England?
- 2 How fast does the virus spread?
- 3 How long will the new suspension last?
- 4 When will the vaccine be introduced?
- 5 How likely is it that this target will be hit?
- 6 Are there other factors in determining whether the lock can be unlocked?
- 7 Could we be locked in the long run?
Why was another ban introduced in England?
In a televised address Monday evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said hospitals have been under more pressure than ever since the pandemic began. The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital in England rose by almost a third to 27,000 in the last week.
Mr Johnson said England needed a new national lockdown with record cases across the UK and a 20% increase in deaths in the past week.
How fast does the virus spread?
The latest figures showed an additional 407 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 on Monday, and there was a record of 58,784 laboratory-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
Of the 315 local areas in England, 292 (93%) saw case rates increase in the seven days ended December 31 compared to the previous week, 22 (7%) saw a decrease and one remained unchanged.
How long will the new suspension last?
It is not yet clear how long the lockdown will last, but the prime minister said the prospect of rolling out the vaccination program nationwide could allow restrictions to be gradually eased from mid-February.
However, in a round of radio interviews Tuesday, Mr Gove said that relaxation of the rules may have to wait until next month – and that even then, some measures may have to remain in place.
Mr Gove also said the restrictions are “constantly being reviewed”.
When will the vaccine be introduced?
More than a million people have received their first coronavirus vaccination. The first Oxford / AstraZeneca pushes will be launched on Monday.
Mr Johnson said that “with a good wind in our sails” it should be possible to vaccinate 13 million of the most vulnerable people by mid-February, paving the way for controls to be relaxed.
At the top of the list of priorities are people living and working in nursing homes, followed by those over the age of 80 and health and social care workers on the front lines, including NHS workers.
Next on the list are people over 75, and the fourth group are people over 70 and people classified as extremely clinically at risk.
How likely is it that this target will be hit?
Mr Gove said the NHS is working “around the clock” to ensure that 13 million people are vaccinated by mid-February.
Professor Nilay Shah of Imperial College London said that with great coordination of manufacturing, logistics, rapid training of vaccination administration staff and patient collaboration, it should be possible to achieve daily vaccination levels of 300,000 to 500,000 doses per day.
But that depended on everything going right every day, he added.
Prof. Shah added, “If we take the top four groups that would be about 10 million people. Assuming that we are aiming for a first class and reinforced vaccination strategy, even if the gap could be longer, that translates to 20 million vaccinations.
“At 400,000 cans a day, assuming we change seven days a week, that’s 50 days that would bring us to mid-February (for 100% coverage).
“If the goal is to get the first dose for the four main priority groups by mid-February, we would have to reach 200,000 doses per day. This is achievable too, but everything has to go right every day.”
Mr Johnson also said that the limiting factor in expanding vaccine rollout in the UK is not the supply or staff, but the wait for batch approval and quality control.
Are there other factors in determining whether the lock can be unlocked?
A number of factors were used during the pandemic to decide whether to impose or relax restrictions.
One of the most important was the virus reproductive number, or R-value, which represents the rate at which the virus has spread. If the R number is above one, it means the infection is increasing.
Wise member Professor Calum Semple said the R-rate on the descent is not a very useful indicator, and what needs to be lowered are case numbers presented to the hospital and the level of illness within the community.
He added, “It is both community and hospital absolute numbers that predict when we will get out of a higher level of regulation.”
Other factors previously considered are case rates, rates in those over 60, positivity rate – the number of positive cases found as a percentage of tests performed – and pressure on the NHS.
It is not clear which of these or other factors are also taken into account when the government decides whether to relax restrictions.
Could we be locked in the long run?
Mr Johnson said that even if the vaccination goal is met, there will be a two to three week delay from getting the shock to receiving immunity, while there will also be another time delay before pressure on the NHS is released.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the government’s Pandemic Influenza Scientific Group on Modeling (SPI-M), said the exit is likely to be “slow and cautious”.
The University of Edinburgh’s professor of infectious disease epidemiology also warned that vaccination of priority groups is not enough to achieve herd immunity.
He added: “The Prime Minister set an ambitious target for the introduction of vaccines for priority groups by mid-February.
“Vaccination groups protect them from infections and diseases. However, it will not be enough to achieve herd immunity for the virus to circulate freely in the general population. “