Coronavirus – Prerequisites for Lifting Lockdown in the UK

  • November 14, 2020

Living in West London during the lockdown imposed as a consequence of the Coronavirus outbreak is a surreal experience. Normal existence, such as we knew less than two months ago, seems to have occurred in another lifetime. Some of us older ones lived through the nervous uncertainties of the Cold War and we all look with some trepidation at the imminent challenges posed by climate change. But this is something altogether different.

As a 58-year-old diabetic male my vulnerability in the face of this virus is heightened. As is that of my son, who is asthmatic. Neither of us is listed among the 1.5 million most vulnerable as identified by the UK government, but we are open enough to complications for us to have gone voluntarily into more or less full isolation, along with the remainder of the household who are supporting us. Various in-laws and outlaws seem to be trying their level best to tempt us out into the perilous yonder, but thus far we are holding firm.

Readily available data

I am neither a virologist nor an epidemiologist. I am not even a statistician. But I have an O-level in Mathematics. And modest though this achievement may be in the wider scheme of academia it is sufficient to enable me to identify trends and to draw conclusions from data that is readily available to anybody with a connection to the Internet and a working knowledge of Google. Which is why I shudder at the evident bemusement of many of those commentators who pass for experts.

Throughout its handling of the coronavirus, my government has been keen to stress that it is “following the science”. Political spokespersons are invariably accompanied during briefings by medical advisers and scientists aplenty of order and esteem. And yet what passes as the best of scientific advice one day seems so often to fall by the wayside the next. Thus our initial reluctance to suspend large sporting events was based on “scientific advice” which stated there was no evidence that large crowds of people packed closely together presented an ideal environment in which a virus might spread, only for contrary advice to be issued barely a day or two later. Likewise pubs and restaurants. “Following the science” has even been offered as an explanation for deficiencies in the provision of protective equipment to frontline workers and in testing capacity. One could be forgiven for wondering whether political policy was being informed by the science, or vice versa.

Long plateau

That was then. Today we are in lockdown, and the discussion has moved on to how we are going to get out of it. Much flustered navel gazing inevitably ensues as it dawns upon the great and the good, political and scientific, that a dynamic market economy cannot be held in suspended animation forever. So where does it all go from here?

If one wants to know what is likely to happen in the future, the past and indeed the present often serve as useful guides. And there is enough information to be found in the statistical data that we have collated since the initial outbreak in Wuhan, through the exponential pre-lockdown increases in the number of infections and deaths and on to the more welcome signs that have more recently begun to emerge from Italy and Spain, to give us some idea of where we are headed.

First of all, the long plateau followed by a gradual decline in the numbers reflects the less drastic approach taken by the European democracies than was adopted by China. When crisis comes there can be a price to pay for enjoying the benefits of a free and open society. In southern Europe the descent from the “peak” of the outbreak is noticeably slower than was the original climb. With the United Kingdom’s shutdown being less severe even than Spain’s or Italy’s, the unfortunate fact is that we can expect our recovery from this first peak, when it comes, to be an even more laboured one.

The reproduction number

The basic reproduction number is the mathematical term used by epidemiologists to quantify the rate of infection of any virus or illness. Experts have calculated that, when left unchallenged, the reproduction number (or R0) of Covid-19 is around 2.5. This means that each infected person will, on average, pass the virus to 2.5 other people, leading to exponential spread.

Lockdowns, public awareness campaigns and social distancing measures are intended to lower the R0 to below 1.0, thereby in time reducing and eventually halting the spread of infection. To induce a decline in infections as rapid as a 2.5-times increase the number would need to be lowered to 0.4 (or 1 divided by 2.5). A preliminary study by a team at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has calculated that in the UK the present R0 of the virus is around 0.62 which, if accurate and provided it is maintained, would mean the virus is set to diminish, albeit at a slower pace than that of its original acceleration.

There is more good news too. The British-American-Israeli Nobel laureate biophysicist Michael Levitt, who runs a laboratory at Stanford University in California, points out that the R0 of a virus naturally reduces over time due to the tendency of people to move within finite social circles, thereby increasingly restricting the number of new contacts that it will encounter. Coupled with a deliberate strategy of social distancing, this will further drive down spread.

Lifting restrictions

So far so good, if indeed anything can be said to be good about a global pandemic which at the time of writing has already claimed the lives of over a hundred thousand people. But the challenge now is how to lift restrictions and to begin to resume something even approaching normality without the rate of infections once again increasing rapidly. Neither the needs of the economy nor human nature will allow life to placed on hold indefinitely.

One imagines, or at least hopes, that any significant relaxation of the restrictions will inevitably follow a reduction in new infections to a far more manageable number than is the case at present. When it does happen, the objective must nevertheless be to maintain new infections at a level below R1. Without achieving this, a second wave is inevitable.

The lesson taught to us by the initial spread of the virus is a sobering one. Then contagion was taking place in one city in one country a very long way from home, and yet within little more than a month it had broken out to engulf the entire planet. Now, with 240 separate nations all fighting the virus in varying stages of development, any measures taken by any one country to keep it from returning to within its borders would need to be extraordinary.


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